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Contributed photo / The Chambliss Center for Children and MOMentum Network partnered to create the Little Scholars program, adding 10 early learning seats in 2020.

Mayor Andy Berke's Seats for Success initiative surpassed its goal of adding 1,000 high-quality early learning seats before the end of his term. Since his state of the city address in 2018, 1,136 high-quality early learning seats have been added.

Berke created the Office of Early Learning in 2017 to better prepare children before they start kindergarten, and he set the goal of adding 1,000 early learning slots in April 2018. Ariel Ford led the office from its creation in 2017 to August 2020, followed by current director Angela Hayes.

"This was a way for us to start a community goal that providers and government and philanthropy could all get behind and that's what we found, that these types of goals create momentum and form a community of people who are excited to to rush past the finish line," Berke said.

Three hundred and sixty five seats were added were added within the first year of the office's creation, and 600 more seats were added in 2020, according to a 2021 report from Chattanooga 2.0.

For Hayes, two factors that helped reach the goal were creating capital opportunities for childcare providers and providing supports such as high-quality curriculum. Capital support for providers adding new seats came through the Chattanooga Office of Economic Development and about $800,000 in grants came from the Quality Matters Fund.

"In essence, through Mayor Berke's vision and support for the curriculum, we were able to supply programs citywide with access to a research-based curriculum and training classroom staff on that curriculum to effectively use that curriculum," Hayes said. "That was such a systematic approach to influencing programs' quality."

Resources provided by the Office of Early Learning, such as grant-writing classes and speaking with experts like accountants and attorneys, helped childcare providers finance and expand their capacity.

"We've just had all kinds of individuals to come in and share with providers some best practices to boost that confidence," Hayes said. "When they are sharing in a community, or when they receive this information in a community with other providers, they encourage each other, so that has been a huge, huge factor in building competence within the early learning community to inspire and encourage them to expand, to look at options and opportunities out there that can help them push towards enhancing their quality."

In Hamilton County, there are now 157 licensed agencies through the Tennessee Department of Human Services, Hayes said, and 12 agencies closed due to COVID-19. Agencies are evaluated annually on factors such as staff and curriculum, and the city defines "high quality" centers as those with three stars, the highest rating that can be achieved.

Chambliss Center for Children is a center that added more seats through two different programs — one program at Clifton Hills Elementary added 12 seats and serves the teachers and staff of the school, while another added 10 seats through a partnership between Chambliss Center and MOMentum Network called Little Scholars.

This year, 10 more classrooms are being built on the Chambliss Center's main campus, a project that was delayed due to the pandemic. The classrooms will serve 75 children and open at the end of this year.

"We still are unsure what our summer is going to look like, and maybe even what our fall is going to look like, but we know at some point when life is back to normal that there will be a need by parents for high-quality childcare so that they can go back to work," Harbison said. "We just want to be ready to meet that need, and that's why we were continuing our expansion."

Contact Anika Chaturvedi at achaturvedi@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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