The Chattanooga Early Learning Scholarship: Real Stories of Success

This program is changing the lives of families across Greater Chattanooga.

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Early Childhood Success

We’ve spent the month of September talking about the importance of early childhood education and care in our city, as well as about the obstacles in the way of this necessity for many of our neighbors. If you missed our most recent blog (a Q&A with Little Miss Mag Learning Center that you can check out here), here’s a recap: 

  • Over 90% of brain growth occurs during the early childhood period of time. So, receiving a high-quality education early in life helps with brain development, social and emotional skills and school readiness.

  • For many households in Greater Chattanooga, providing children with high-quality childcare during their early years is not a given. In fact, 63% of Tennessee parents reported finding affordable childcare as a significant challenge.

  • About 66% of children in Tennessee have both parents in the workforce, often out of necessity, meaning the household can not afford to lose half their income in order to have a parent stay home.

  • The cost of program-based childcare (about $15,814 a year on average for a family of four) often eats up about 10% or more of household income, leaving these families financially burdened either way.

  • Due to COVID-19, many child care centers shut down, which reduced the number of spots available in our local area. As a result, parents are struggling to find spots for their children and many centers now have an excessively long waitlist, widening the already-large gaps in access to early childhood education and care. 


The Chattanooga Early Learning Scholarship

United Way of Greater Chattanooga works to fight for equal opportunity to succeed for every child in our community. One of the ways we do this is through the Chattanooga Early Learning Scholarship, or CELS. Funded by the City of Chattanooga and administered by United Way staff, the scholarship is designed to offer support to income-constrained households financially burdened by childcare. Families who qualify for this program are able to receive financial assistance with up to 40% of tuition costs. And you don’t have to meet federal poverty standards to apply -- we know there is a group of employed but asset-limited individuals in our community who work hard but still struggle to make ends meet. CELS can help alleviate some of this strain and ensure our children have access to healthy and educational early childhood care. If eligible for CELS, the next step is for families to fill out a pre-screening form through our website and wait to be contacted by a United Way staff member. Here are the eligibility criteria: 

  • Child’s age is 6 weeks through 5 years old

  • Parent(s)/Guardian(s) are employed or in school

  • Parent(s)/Guardian(s) reside in Chattanooga city limits

  • Child care provider is 2 or 3-star rated and located in Hamilton County (to find out more information such as rating on your child care provider, click here.)


CELS has already changed the lives of several of our neighbors. Keep reading for two real stories of impact that CELS has made for families here in Greater Chattanooga. 


The Russo Family

“Our middle son, who is now almost five and will be attending kindergarten in fall, had some developmental problems in infancy and early toddlerhood. Though he was mostly “caught up” by his second birthday, he continued having problems with sensory processing, emotional regulation and behavior, and his doctor strongly recommended that he be enrolled in preschool so that he could benefit from peer modeling and a structured learning environment.


Unfortunately, during the time that my son needed preschool most, my wife and I dealt with a lot of unexpected expenses caused by health problems and family emergencies. We found ourselves facing a decision between paying our essential bills or paying for our son’s preschool. 


The director of the preschool knew about our situation and pointed us toward United Way of Greater Chattanooga. We were so thankful to learn that the Chattanooga Early Learning Scholarship was available to us even though we would not have qualified for government assistance or public preschool. Through CELS, United Way of Greater Chattanooga helped us make sure our son’s developmental, emotional and behavioral needs were met during a critical time in our life as a family. There were times that his school was able to provide him with care that we couldn’t have given at home under the circumstances, as well as the stability that he needed to maintain a sense of normalcy during the most challenging times. His school allowed him to thrive, make friends, and prepare for kindergarten.


Three years later, we are able to enroll our youngest in preschool without assistance from CELS. We are so thankful that we had help when we needed it most.”



The Hawk Family 

“As a single mother of two children, the Chattanooga Early Learning Scholarship program has allowed me to focus on my career and with a reduced financial burden. Without this program, I would be paying an extra $600 per month for childcare, as I don’t qualify for any other type of daycare assistance.. Having that extra money allows for me to better provide for my children and enrich their lives. 


When I found out I was pregnant with my second child, it was very unexpected. I worried and stressed about paying for daycare during my entire pregnancy -- until my daycare director told me about the CELS program. She directed me to United Way of Greater Chattanooga for the application. When she told me that I was approved for the scholarship, I burst out in tears. It was a huge relief! 


Without this program, I would be forced to struggle to make ends meet or to change daycare centers, which would negatively affect my children. This scholarship allows my children to attend the child development center that I know and trust, which in turn allows me to better focus on my work during the day -- for it’s when my workday ends that my real job as a mother begins. 


Women are often expected to stay at home with our children or work part time in order to care for them, but not everyone is in a position to be able to do so. Missing a paycheck is not an option for me. I have worked hard to advance in my career, working full time while attending college to secure my degree in Business Management & Administration. Women should be able to have both children and a successful career. I believe that when we create opportunities for mothers to be successful in their work lives, we can also improve the lives of children in this city, bringing up a generation of successful citizens. I feel so fortunate to live in a city that offers the CELS program to women like me.”

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