The Chattanooga City Council unanimously approved the creation of the municipality's Department of Early Learning, a key priority of Mayor Tim Kelly's administration.
Council members also unanimously approved the department's administrator, Karitsa Jones, who will oversee the effort meant to improve access to pre-K educational opportunities and guide the city's children toward successful academic futures.
"What we know is that healthy starts in life will let you be productive citizens in the long run," Jones said after the council's Tuesday meeting. "So what's a city without productive citizens, what's a city without a future?"
Jones' salary will be $133,900. Her previous salary as head of the city's Community Forward Schools Partnership was $87,510.
She will oversee a department with a $1.4 million budget and 32 employee positions, which could change with the city's next budget.
Jones said her goal is to ensure families and their children before kindergarten have the proper resources to prepare them for schooling so they can continue to succeed educationally as they progress through school and eventually be productive Chattanooga citizens.
In addition, she said, the department would help families who may not normally have the resources to provide children with all they need.
"A lot of times, children lack nourishment, they lack housing, they lack the things that are making them ready for school," Jones said. "Our desire at the Department of Early Learning is that we surround them with resources the city already has."
Councilman Isiah Hester, of Washington Hills, lauded the creation of the department in an interview after Tuesday's meeting and said it's integral to filling the gaps in early childhood learning.
"Learning begins in the womb, and hopefully, we can address these problems early, where we can combat some of the problems associated with our learning deficiencies, such as a lot of kids are behind before they even get to kindergarten," Hester said.
Kelly since taking office has made it a priority to better prepare young children for their educational experience.
Not only will it benefit the children, his administration has said, but it will also benefit the community as a whole.
"Whether you're talking about workforce development, whether you're talking about economic development, people having jobs, good jobs, that they can afford to raise a family and live in a house they want to, education solves all of those things," Kelly spokesperson Ellis Smith said Tuesday.
Jones was initially named to lead the city's Community Forward Schools Partnership in August, and the program has since been able to build partnerships with key stakeholders in the community who work with local schools and hold community events, she said.
Jones will continue leading the Community Forward Schools Partnership in an interim role until she hires her replacement, but she is not being paid two salaries, she said.
"In management, when you don't have anyone else, you do the job," Jones said.
Jones is also a school board member for the county's District 5, which includes Ridgeside and a portion of Chattanooga.