The YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga and St. Paul's Episcopal Church celebrate the opening of the YMCA Early Learning Center at St. Paul's. From left are Nelson Irvine, the Rev. Brad Whitaker, Janet Dunn, Jessica Storey and Erskine Oglesby. / Contributed photo by YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga

YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga's new Early Learning Center for kids younger than 3 is now open at St. Paul's Episcopal Church.

The new center, with capacity to serve 45 children, is an expansion of the Downtown Family YMCA Preschool. That program served 189 children in 2018, according to a release.

The new learning center will serve children ages 1 to 2-and-a-half, and the Downtown Family YMCA preschool will continue to serve kids age 2-and-a-half through kindergarten, said Cara Standifer, chief marketing officer for YMCA of Metropolitan Chattanooga.

Research shows 80% of brain development occurs before age 3, the release states.

The YMCA is one of about 200 child care providers in Hamilton County, and it's one of 17 facilities that has either added or committed to adding more high-quality early learning seats as part of Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke's "1,000 seats" initiative. In 2018, Berke set a goal of adding 1,000 high-quality early learning seats by 2021.

Child care providers can add high-quality seats by adding new seats or improving their existing program's rating on the state's Star Quality Program, a voluntary program that recognizes providers that go beyond minimum standards via a three-star rating system. Programs must be open at least a year before they can receive a star rating, with three being the highest.

The downtown YMCA preschool is one of only about 85 of the county's 200 providers with a three-star rating, records show.

The establishment of the YMCA Early Learning Center at St. Paul's is also in response to the Chattanooga 2.0 initiative, said Jessica Storey, director of the YMCA's downtown preschool and the new program at St. Paul's. In 2016, Chattanooga 2.0 set a goal of raising the percentage of students entering kindergarten ready for school from 40% to 80%.

Funding for the Early Learning Center at St. Paul's came from the Scenic City Venture Fund and the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee. Funding for the preschool's playground was provided by the Tennessee Department of Education's Centers of Regional Excellence and the Lyndhurst Foundation, Storey said.

Open weekdays year-round (aside from major holidays) from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., both programs are Christian-based and include healthy breakfast, lunch and snack.

"Our preschools also provide access to swimming lessons, which is a unique aspect of our programs and something we're really proud of," said Standifer.

Families receive a free household membership to the YMCA while their children are enrolled.

Fully operational since the week of Thanksgiving, the Early Learning Center at St. Paul's is currently at about half-capacity, with around 15 spots still open.

In addition to the new program at St. Paul's, the Downtown Y preschool is adding two new 3- and 4-year-old classrooms, creating 15-20 new spots when they open at the beginning of March, said Storey.

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Staff writer Meghan Mangrum contributed to this story.

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