Signal Centers CEO Donna McConnico and Baby University Director Elizabeth Cotellese address the Chattanooga City Council.

Chattanooga will continue its partnership with nonprofit Signal Centers and BlueCross BlueShield's Tennessee Health Foundation to help low-income families keep their children healthy and ready to learn.

Signal Centers administers Baby University, the city's signature program to keep children, from birth to 2 years old, on track developmentally. The program assists 119 families, including 228 adults and 296 children, according to a recent report released by the nonprofit agency. However, program officials say that number is growing and will likely hit 150 families in the near future.


Signal Centers launched the program in East Lake, but expanded it to Alton Park, operating out of office space at Howard High School.

On Tuesday, the Chattanooga City Council voted 9-0 in favor of extending the city's $250,000 Baby University agreement with Signal Centers for another 12 months.

"When we talk about money well-spent, I don't know if we can find a better example than this," Councilman Yusuf Hakeem said. "We talk about enhancing and changing the lives of so many people. I see this as a nurturing environment. I see this as a holistic environment."

Signal Centers CEO Donna McConnico and Baby University Director Elizabeth Cotellese discussed how the program works to help teenage students at the high school.

"We have some specific goals for them that are a little different than our general population," McConnico said. "The first is get prenatal care, the second is deliver a healthy baby, the third is stay in school and graduate and the fourth is to delay any further pregnancies until after graduation."

Baby University has helped 34 Howard students who are either pregnant or have delivered, McConnico said. So far, the program has been "pretty much 100 percent successful" in helping the student mothers stick to those goals, she said.

Cotellesse said 28 of the students have remained in school and four others have graduated on time.

New Baby University programming also seeks to keep fathers — especially teen fathers — active in the lives of their children, McConnico said.

She said she is also seeing some success in creating bonds between Baby University families, citing connections families are making outside organized meetings and parental workshops.

Cotellese reported that the program has added an additional three families, handling 122 active family cases now, totaling more than 600 people. Another 21 families have graduated from Baby University, she said.

"We don't serve the mom and the baby in isolation," Cotellese said. "We're actually serving the entire household."

Mayor Andy Berke explained in an email why his administration recommended funding the program another year.

"We know that children who start out behind are less likely to ever catch up," Berke said. "Through Baby University, we are setting Chattanooga families up for success by giving them access to the necessary resources, care & education to pursue a healthy, happy life. Since we announced Baby University in 2014, Signal Centers and Blue-Cross BlueShield of Tennessee have helped hundreds of Chattanoogans through intensive case management, mentoring, and support, and I look forward to seeing how many more families we will reach this year."

Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or Follow him on Twitter @pleach_tfp.