After its corporate owners decided to shut down an east Tulsa early childhood center due to crime in the area, a nonprofit organization stepped in to save the day.

Families and employees said goodbye to the La Petite Academy at 1950 S. 131st East Ave. on Wednesday. They celebrated its revival under the new name of Grace Heights Childhood Enrichment Center on Thursday.

William and Nicole James, founders of the Neighborhood Improvement Foundation, never expected to own a day care when they expanded their organization to Tulsa from Ohio last year. They came here to repurpose buildings and develop food-growing units in underserved communities.

“This dropped in our laps a few weeks ago,” said William James, a minister who graduated from Oral Roberts University. “We found out these kids were going to have to leave.”

They got the call from Jessica Davis, the new and overwhelmed director of La Petite Academy.

Davis started the job in April and quickly set out to expand the center’s reach. Enrollment jumped from 33 children to 103 within a month, resulting in the need for a waiting list.

She didn’t know then that the Michigan-based Learning Care Group, which operates hundreds of La Petite Academies and other child care centers across North America, planned to close the center on June 21. The company alerted her on May 20.

The news devastated Davis. She said she was told that concerns about the high rate of violent crime in the surrounding neighborhood largely led to the decision to close the center.

Davis understood the choice from a business perspective, but she didn’t accept it.

La Petite serves mostly poor families that can’t afford traditional child care options. The facility was contracted to receive payments from the Oklahoma Department of Human Services as well as the Shawnee Tribe and Cherokee Nation.

“The next morning I was driving to work, and I was like, wait a minute. These kids live here,” Davis said. “We’re not going to change anything, and we’re not going to make their lives better if we run from this. So I just knew we had to stand our ground and hope for the best.”

She reached out to the Jameses through a mutual acquaintance and asked if they’d purchase and operate the academy as part of their foundation.

To Davis’ surprise, her desperate move worked. She persuaded the owners to delay closing La Petite until the end of July to give the Neighborhood Improvement Foundation time to become licensed and establish contracts with the state and both tribes.

“This would not have happened if they weren’t willing to take the time to listen and do this,” she said. “The fact that they have the same heartbeat and the pulse for this as I do — it’s worked out perfectly.

“The fact that they’re in another state and they’re willing to do this shows how important these kids and these families are to them. I’m beyond grateful.”

Monica Auerbach, who has two children enrolled at the center, didn’t know what to do when she heard it was closing. As a single mother, she depended on La Petite to keep her children safe while she worked less than a block away.

Her next day care option would have required a lot more money and a much longer commute.

Auerbach remembers feeling an enormous sense of relief when she learned an outside group was acquiring the center.

“Now I can still have my children close by,” she said. “That’s really important to me. As a single parent on my own, I got to be able to get to my kids quickly. Knowing someone stepped up to save this place is just fantastic.”

Taking over an early childhood center proved to be a bigger endeavor than William James imagined. He said he’s scared but excited for Grace Heights to open to families Monday.

He and his wife have some background experience in child care. He said the work happening at the center aligned with his foundation’s mission to show dignity and uphold humanity.

“We just knew we couldn’t let these kids be displaced,” he said. “Many of them depend on this place for protection and food on a consistent basis. That was all the context we needed.”

Their plan is to acquire the property next door to make room for the more than 50 children on the waiting list. They also hope to expand the center’s after-school programming.

Additionally, the center has formed partnerships with local organizations and businesses to offer child counselors, as well as speech and occupational therapists, on site.

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Kyle Hinchey


Twitter: @kylehinchey 


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