Chattanooga's Baby University builds on earlier idea

Chattanooga's Baby University builds on earlier idea

November 8th, 2014 by Joy Lukachick Smith in Local Regional News

Stacy Richardson, Mayor-elect Andy Berke, Travis McDonough and Andrew Kean, from left, stand at a podium during a news conference at the Development Resource Center.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

A project similar to Mayor Andy Berke's $250,000 effort to start a baby college in Chattanooga based on Harlem's cradle-to-college model was attempted four years ago.

A community-led effort known as the Chattanooga Promise Zone was going to target the neighborhood around the Harriet Tubman public housing site to teach parents how to get their kids ready for elementary school and to provide the support inner-city students needed to graduate.

The Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies showed that in Hamilton County, 25 percent of children are at risk of not being ready for kindergarten.

The Ochs Center generated public support for the idea by holding a forum in 2009 to talk about the program's model: the Harlem's Children Zone, a holistic approach to preparing children for graduation starting from the cradle.

Berke's wife, Monique, who worked for the Ochs Center, said then that she was amazed at the amount of local interest in the idea.

Over the next two years, community leaders formed a committee, held public meetings and applied for a $500,000 federal grant. Both Hamilton County and Chattanooga promised to pay $75,000 if the grant was secured.

But when the promise zone wasn't selected for funding in 2010 and leaders couldn't hire full-time staff, the project waned, said Edna Varner, who was chairwoman of the advisory committee for the project.

This time around, the mayor's office said it is starting with a narrower focus, to teach expectant parents through educational classes and in-home visits to get their children ready for school.

The mayor's senior adviser, Stacy Richardson, who was an intern at the Ochs Center and helped work on the Promise Zone project-- said the city's new initiative, called Baby University, is a different model.

It targets parents with children from birth to 2 years old. The city will pay a nonprofit partner to implement the project and oversee the program.

"The Promise Zone model was really hard to get off the ground because we were limited with all volunteers and it's a really expensive model," Richardson said. "If you don't get the federal funding, it's really hard to do."

Unlike the Chattanooga Promise Zone, the city is looking to take the classes citywide. Yet city officials want a partner that can reach parents across Chattanooga, targeting pockets where families live in poverty and mothers have low education levels.

The goal for this first year is to teach between 85 and 100 parents.

Representatives of several nonprofit agencies that attended an educational meeting with the mayor's office Friday said they were interested in the proposal but wanted to know if they could partner with another group to combine expertise.

Varner, who was asked to be on the mayor's office advisory panel this summer, said the city can succeed if it gets different organizations with separate strengths to work together. Some organizations are good at teaching parenting classes, others offer screening for parents with young children showing developmental delays, and other groups offer in-home visits, she said.

Jason McKinney, who works for the city's Youth and Family Development Department and helps head the project, said the city is open to multiple agencies partnering together.

The city has already gained some private funding for the project, they said. BlueCross BlueShield's foundation gave $75,000, which means the city will offer $325,000 to a partner to head Baby University for its first year.

The deadline to apply to head the project is Dec. 2.

One neighborhood leader who helped organize meetings on the Promise Zone project said the city needs to learn from that project and better explain the intent of the project to the public.

There was a lot of misinformation and confusion about who was behind the program and its purpose, said Lloyd Longnion, a Southside neighborhood association leader.

City officials agreed that the education piece is key to getting parents interested in taking the classes and ultimately lowering infant mortality rates and getting kids ready to start schools.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick Smith at or 423-757-6659.