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Expectant mothers Ashley Harris and Rishunda Bryant, right, talk with Melody Chambers, left, of the Signal Centers as they attend a health fair at the Brainerd Complex in Chattanooga.

Chattanooga's initiative to start a "baby university" to offer parents with children from birth to age 2 access to prenatal care and early childhood training will be headed by Signal Centers, a local social services agency.

This year, organization leaders said they will target 75 parents in the East Lake area surrounding East Side Elementary School by going into their homes and being closely involved in their lives.

On Tuesday, the City Council unanimously approved the $325,000 contract with Signal Centers, using $250,000 from the city budget and an additional $75,000 donated by BlueCross BlueShield's foundation.

Last year, Mayor Andy Berke announced the city's project and said it would be based on Harlem's Children Zone's Baby College, a model that has been used for two decades in New York that gives families with children educational, social and medical help starting before the child's birth.

For the last year, city officials said they have been planning for baby university through interviewing groups of mothers and other stakeholders in the community.

Signal Centers was one of two agencies to respond to the city's request for proposals. The other agency was the Creative Discovery Museum, city officials said.

But in Signal Center's proposal to the city, officials outlined how at least 11 nonprofits or government agencies have agreed to partner with them. Other agencies include, United Way, the Hamilton County Health Department and the Chattanooga Housing Authority. Signal Centers will act as the case manager for the parents directing them to the different services available in Hamilton County.

"It's a great opportunity for us to say to the city of Chattanooga we care about children from inception and beyond,"said Lurone Jennings, director of the city's Youth and Family Development Center.

Signal Centers currently offers services for adults with disabilities and early childhood development for all children, including those with special needs.

Donna McConnico, the chief executive officer at the center, said the idea of the program is to walk along side these parents from pregnancy through birth, call their doctors, visit their homes, drive them to appointments, check up with them on a weekly basis and even offer free child care.

Contact staff writer Joy Lukachick Smith at jsmith@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

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