In 2017, the Sioux City Schools brought shocking data to a Comprehensive Strategy (now Source For Siouxland) collaborative community meeting. Less than 17% of Sioux City children enter preschool with age-level skills, and just 44% were at or above literacy benchmarks when they entered kindergarten. Further, studies indicated there is a 30-million-word gap by age four for children living in poverty compared to children of parents in professional jobs.  Community partners were not just shocked but disheartened by this news, and immediately mobilized to develop and implement strategies to improve the data.

As partners dug into the root causes of why so many of our children are behind at such an early age, they learned that a child’s brain is 80% developed by age 3. That means the neural connections that comprise the foundation of later cognitive development are mostly made in the first three years of life – well before the child enters school.

How are these brain-building connections made? In addition to experiencing nurturing affection and proper diet and exercise, positive interactions with parents, siblings, caregivers, and others stimulates a baby’s brain to develop more neurons, preparing the child’s brain to receive, process, and retain information as he or she grows. In other words, talking, playing, reading, and singing with babies from infancy – in any language, and regardless of the parent or caregiver’s educational level or socioeconomic status – has perhaps the greatest impact on a child’s brain development and future ability to retain and process information.

0-3: Prime Age to Engage is community literacy initiative working to create positive action by those with infants or toddlers in their lives.  The initiative aims to ensure parents, older siblings, grandparents, childcare providers, medical providers, and many others understand how essential a child’s first three years are to their long-term cognitive development and is equipped with easy ways to positively impact that development.

With support from a United Way FOCUS grant, the Siouxland Community Foundation, Siouxland Human Investment Partnership, Sioux City Community School District, and nearly 70 community partners, four workgroups focus the work of the initiative:

-Health and Medical – provides a toolkit to medical providers that includes ‘prescriptions to read’ and posters for exam rooms. Medical partners also give a new book to children at their well child visits.

-Early Learning Environments – partners with area childcare providers to offer training and best practices to caregivers.

-Early Literacy – secured the support of the local carpenter’s union to build and deliver bookshelves to organizations and lobbies where children often are, and teams up with Siouxland CARES, the Mayor’s Youth Commission, D2 Worldwide, and the United Way of Siouxland to keep the shelves full of books.

-Ready for K – hosts onsite sessions at local elementary schools that provide parents and caregivers tools to optimize their preschooler’s learning and development.

-Media and Community Outreach – launched the 0-3 initiative in the summer of 2018 with a press conference, billboards, PSAs, YouTube ‘how-to’ videos, and multilingual brochures that reinforce the power of talking, playing, reading, and singing with infants and toddlers.

In 2019, the 0-3 initiative received the Pacesetter Award for Collaboration from the Campaign for Grade Level Reading. Of the other community literacy initiatives receiving awards, 0-3 was the only one operating almost entirely off the in-kind collaborative efforts of the partners, a testament to our community’s commitment to providing the best possible opportunities to our children, even when resources are not available.

More than a year after launching the initiative, partners continue to identify and implement new ways to reach more families. Visit to learn how easy it is to engage with little ones in your life, and to support the Prime Age to Engage initiative.