It took hearing her baby's heartbeat for Tia Reed to admit she was pregnant.
The single mom had taken six pregnancy tests but was in denial until she went to Choices Pregnancy Resources Center last winter. She was clueless about what she would do, and about how to take care of another person. It was there that she learned how to eat healthy foods, read to her baby and get the support she needed to acquire diapers, formula and a car seat.
For more than a decade Hamilton County has had the second-highest death rate for babies less than a year old in the state -- 33 in 2012 -- and Choices, a faith-based organization in Brainerd, is one of several groups across the county that works to educate expecting parents on nutrition, safety concerns and early childhood development.
Now Mayor Andy Berke wants to add a city organization to that list, which has sparked a debate on the City Council.
Berke budgeted $250,000 in the fiscal 2014-15 budget to initiate a city-led Baby College. That's a trademarked name taken from the Harlem's Children Zone's Baby College, one component to a model for two decades in New York that gives kids educational, social and medical help starting before their birth.
Chattanooga officials have questioned whether the program is another taxpayer-funded idea thrown into the mix that may or may not produce results. Others worry that the city might be trying to crowd other agencies that already target expecting parents and infant health.
Yet Berke argues a baby's development before birth is key to solving sociological problems -- helping children start their lives healthy so they can be successful later on.
"This is a long-term strategy that means at every single phase we have to have the opportunities that get Chattanooga babies from the cradle to the career," Berke said.
In Hamilton County about 4,000 babies are born every year, and the death rate is 7.9 per 1,000 babies. According to Chattanooga statistics there are subregions in the city where more than 75 percent of births are to single mothers and more than half of the children are born into poverty.
Region health experts say research shows many local babies' deaths are related to the mothers' health and the lack of access to care.
"We have learned a lot of times women don't have the information they need," said Diane Kreider, director of case management for the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department.
Some of the ways to educate expecting parents early in the pregnancies are nutritional counseling, in-home visits and through access to online information, Kreider said. Through some programs the health department has been able to reduce the disparity of baby deaths that in 2011 showed black babies were three times as likely to die as white babies, she said.
The city's Baby College idea would be modeled after the one in the Harlem's Children Zone, Berke said, which teaches nine-week classes on how to raise a healthy baby from gestation to 3. The goal for this first year is to teach between 85 and 100 parents, partnering with the local Head Start programs to find the parents.
But first Berke plans to appoint an advisory board made up of teachers, medical providers, mothers and philanthropic partners to oversee the concept and send out proposals to outside agencies to partner with the city.
Yet the success of such a program lies with the outreach and the program leaders' flexibility, said Hassan Daniel, director of Harlem's Baby College. The Harlem program is both publicly and privately funded and has graduated about 5,000 families.
In order to reach parents, the program's staff of nearly 100 knocks on doors, escorts parents with physical needs to the center, offers free breakfasts and lunches, advertises that anyone who completes the program receives $100 and offers other incentives.
Once the parents come, program leaders teach the importance of the baby's brain development through reading, singing and playing with their children and then tick through a whole list of challenges from discipline to making the home.
The flexibility comes into play when the center sees a trend -- such as in Harlem with an increase in asthma-related deaths -- and the center partners with an outside agency to educate families, Daniel said.
"We realize we're not everything, and we look to partner with other agencies," he said.
In Chattanooga, officials have yet to decide on the curriculum, where the classes will be held, who will partner with the city and how the city will offer social services to those parents. That will be part of the planning process, said Lurone Jennings, director of the city's Youth and Family Development department.
Right now, he said, it's a dream that has to materialize. As for its success, officials in the mayor's office said they don't know if it will work, but why not try?
Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick at email@example.com or 423-757-6659.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...