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Thursday, Feb 23, 2023

STRONG ACC launches Bright Start plan in Northeast Tennessee; will improve learning outcomes for young children by 2025

Northeast Tennessee’s Bright Start plan has officially launched, beginning a three-year campaign to increase reading and math levels for children in 10 target counties.

Bright Start is a statewide initiative driven by Tennesseans for Quality Early Education (TQEE) designed to close achievement and opportunity gaps for Tennessee children birth through third grade. Backed locally by the STRONG Accountable Care Community (STRONG ACC), Bright Start NETN is one of six Bright Start communities in Tennessee and one of two focused on rural areas.

“STRONG ACC’s mission to align regional partners around improving physical, social and economic health, especially for underprivileged children and their families, made it an excellent choice to serve as the convening entity for the Bright Start Northeast Tennessee partnership,” said Mark Cruise, director of STRONG ACC. “We are excited to implement the Bright Start Northeast Tennessee plan and unveil our three-year strategic plan with the help of many program partners and supporters. Children in our region deserve nothing less than our very best, and by working together, we can help them reach their full potential.”

The strategic plan, finalized earlier this year, kicks off after nearly two years of planning and analysis by a dedicated group of local educators, early childhood professionals, community leaders and other stakeholders who make up the Bright Start NETN Partnership. Through multiple town hall meetings and other stakeholder engagement activities, the Bright Start NETN Steering Committee incorporated input from hundreds of teachers, family and child development experts, healthcare leaders and clinicians and other community leaders to prioritize eight strategies tailored to address the challenges and hone the strengths that are unique to early childhood growth and development in Northeast Tennessee.

“I’m proud to have worked with our committee, subcommittees and workgroups that came together and worked very hard to help us assemble this plan,” said Kristie Hammonds, president and CEO of Frontier Health and co-chair of the Bright Start NETN Steering Committee. “Now, as we pivot to implementation, our eight strategy action teams will work with our community partners to play a key role in driving the work going forward. Ultimately, it’s our goal to see meaningful progress in third grade reading and math proficiency over the coming years.”

Research shows children who aren’t proficient in reading by the third grade tend to stay or fall further behind. They’re four times more likely to drop out of high school and 60% less likely to continue their education after graduation. State testing begins at third grade to identify students who are at risk of falling behind the curve, but intervention at this stage is more difficult for many children, as 90% of a child’s brain develops by age 5.

Currently, only about 25% of low-income children in Northeast Tennessee are on-track in reading and math by third grade. The Bright Start NETN’s three-year plan seeks to increase that percentage to 40% by 2025.

“We know that skills and performance gaps take root long before third grade and are tied to opportunity gaps – by the time we have state test scores in hand, we’ve lost a lot of chances to get these kids on track, particularly in reading and math,” said Kathy Waugh, CEO of the YWCA of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia and co-chair of the Bright Start NETN Steering Committee. “A collective effort focused on education and support systems will elevate vulnerable children, resulting in improved academic outcomes.

“To have the most meaningful impact, a plan of action needs to be in motion before a child walks through the door of their kindergarten classroom, and our Bright Start Northeast Tennessee plan aims to do just that. We’re excited to work with the STRONG ACC and numerous partner organizations to implement the plan.”

The Steering Committee’s research showed the disproportionate effect of poverty is prevalent throughout this region, putting low-income children at the most risk for low academic performance. The plan’s eight strategies will target the strongest barriers children and their families face, implementing strategies to reduce the dropout rate; increase access to healthcare, including behavioral healthcare; increase access to affordable, quality childcare; increase access to substance-use resources; and ensure regular access to tutoring.

“There is a well-known interconnectedness between educational success, economic security and health. That’s the crux of much work being done with Bright Start, and why Ballad Health is proud to have provided backbone services and financial support for STRONG ACC since its beginning,” said Todd Norris, senior vice president of community health and system advancement for Ballad Health and member of Bright Start NETN’s Steering Committee. “When we succeed in these fundamental outcomes or social determinants of health, our entire region benefits, and it creates a foundation and momentum toward a better future for us all.”

Bright Start NETN’s strategic plan will launch to assist families in Carter, Cocke, Greene, Hamblen, Hancock, Hawkins, Johnson, Sullivan, Washington and Unicoi counties, where 56% of children younger than 5 are in households at or below 200% of the federal poverty level.

“Bright Start TN is an important extension of the work TQEE does to advance smart state policies and practices that support young children’s success,” said Jonathan Scoonover, vice president of community engagement for TQEE. “We are grateful to the STRONG ACC for its efforts in convening and activating the Bright Start Northeast Tennessee partnership. They have rallied stakeholders across the 10 counties of Northeast Tennessee to develop a plan that will have a lasting impact on the lives of young children and their families.”

More information about the STRONG ACC is available at