Every year, about 3,800 children start kindergarten in Hamilton County Schools - but only about 42 percent of those children are prepared for success in kindergarten, Angela Hayes of the city of Chattanooga's Office of Early Learning told a crowd at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center Wednesday night.
But in the past year, since Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke set the goal to add 1,000 high-quality early learning seats to the school system at his 2018 State of the City address, childcare facilities, educators and community partners have been working to change that.
"What happens when you start any journey under-prepared?" Hayes said. "You aren't set up for success. It is so important that we not only understand, but we also share with our neighbors and our friends, the importance of these seats. These are super seats."
The Office of Early Learning celebrated almost reaching that goal Wednesday, just a year since Berke set it. It the past 12 months, the 365 high-quality seats have been added at several facilities and another 600 seat commitments were announced.
"We know a lot of kids start out at school behind," Berke said. "It's hard to win a 200-yard race if you start out behind. Education is a moral responsibility we have to our kids. It's the right thing to do."
Many of the new high-quality seats have been added at existing childcare facilities, whether that means improving the programs' quality rating or actually increasing the number of seats at a facility.
Tennessee uses a three-star, quality-rating system for child care centers in the state, with three stars representing higher quality standards and one star representing the minimum standards.
As of August 2018, out of the roughly 200 licensed child care providers in Hamilton County, about 85 had a three-star rating, according to the city.
Research shows that children who have access to safe, educational early-learning opportunities are able to build foundations in not just literacy and academic areas, but socially and emotionally as well.
"It really gives them the foundation to prepare them to come to kindergarten prepared for learning," Hayes said.
The city allocated $800,000 in its 2018-19 budget to develop and assist facilities with training and professional development opportunities and has collaborated with other organizations to help improve early-learning options in the city.
The Office of Early Learning currently convenes a monthly network of childcare facility directors for training and support and is working with a North Carolina-based program to assist childcare workers with compensation benefits if they are in school or earning degrees.
Berke said Wednesday that the work wasn't finished though.
"There is more to do," Berke said. "This is critical for [Chattanooga] when you think about what's important to the city, early learning is one of those most important pieces."
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.