CLEVELAND, Ohio – A group of about 12 second and third graders at Almira Elementary School sit in second-grade teacher Mr. Robert Whidden’s classroom. It’s after school, and since Thanksgiving is a little over a week away, the kids are decorating a Thanksgiving coloring sheet and taking turns sharing what they’re thankful for.

Ms. Tashauna Gray, a site coordinator for Coach Sam’s Scholars, holds a book the kids will read today — Kadir Nelson’s “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” As the session begins, Ms. Gray asks the students if they can predict what the book will be about.

The cover features a sun and a rainbow behind a picture of a Black boy, beaming joyfully. Bree, one of the girls in the group, says she thinks the boy might be wishing for something.

As the children study the book’s front cover, they’re readying themselves to participate in a Coach Sam’s Scholars reading session. A literacy program, Coach Sam’s Scholars was started by former Browns coach Sam Rutigliano. The program partners with Cleveland Playhouse and The Centers for Family and Children to provide services in a growing number of schools in Cleveland Metropolitan School District, including Almira Elementary. and The Plain Dealer have embedded two reporters in Almira Elementary School on Cleveland’s West side to document the many challenges teachers face when working with students whose lives are complicated by poverty and the innovative ways they overcome those hurdles.

Coach Sam’s Scholars aims to develop reading skills for second and third-graders, who are at a critical moment in their academic careers because of the state’s third-grade reading guarantee.

Since the state implemented the third-grade reading standards in 2012, students have needed to earn a “proficient” score to move on to the fourth grade. The Ohio House passed a bill in June 2022, seeking to end the requirement that students repeat the third grade if they don’t pass the test. That bill died in the Ohio Senate last year, but it was re-introduced in the Ohio House in March. Currently, third-graders need a score of 685 or better to be promoted to the fourth grade at the end of the 2022-23 school year.

Kerry Rutigliano, Sam Rutigliano’s daughter, is the program’s vice president of business development. As an eighth-grade teacher at Mayfield Middle School, she feels “we live in a culture still that is driven far too often by standardized testing.”

“I think educators are becoming far more outspoken about the need to use other measures to evaluate students,” Ms. Rutigliano said in a phone interview with

The pandemic threw a wrench in traditional learning paths and skill building, so Coach Sam’s Scholars is taking an approach toward personalized learning, striving to meet students’ individual needs, as best as possible.

“There’s no cookie cutter model, so it’s very important that we personalize instruction so kids can engage the work and feel confident when they enter the classroom, instead of feeling overwhelmed or feeling less than or feeling like it’s an impossible gap to close,” Ms. Rutigliano said.

One of the ways the program makes the sessions accessible is by doing “book walks,” said Jazmine Walker, the program’s academic director. The book walks are a way for the students to interact more with the text, instead of simply reading the words. During book walks, students first analyze the pictures in the book and predict what they think it will be about. They then break down sight words, gathering more meaning with the text and finish with an activity to show their understanding and comprehension of the book.

During the session near Thanksgiving, Gray engages in a book walk with the students, turning the book toward them so they can see the pictures and explain what they see on the pages. At the end of the session, they sing the famous song, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”

The sessions are also accessible because Coach Sam’s Scholars uses books with Black and brown main characters, helping students of color see themselves in the literature. If the students read stories they can relate to and connect with, they can explore and think about their own worlds.

“I think far too often we impose books on kids, and they don’t have relevance in their lives,” Ms. Rutigliano said. “And when they do have relevance, it breathes life and energizes a student’s imagination and creativity and their want to become an avid reader.”

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For this innovative series, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District gave two reporters unprecedented access to a classroom at Almira Elementary School to show readers the challenges of educating children in poverty and what the school district is doing to overcome them. Students’ names have been changed to protect their identity. Read more about this project here.