High School principal’s Black literacy initiative wins Accelerate civic pitch competition

John Marshall School of Civic and Business Leadership principal Sara Kidner had the winning pitch at Cleveland Leadership Center’s seventh annual Accelerate: Citizens Make Change civic pitch competition last Thursday, Feb. 25—taking home $5,000 for her “Read Like Me” idea.

Kidner, whose pitch for her "Read Like Me" literary program was in the education category at the event, wants to improve literacy among young Black male students and promote teaching as a career field for Black males. Her plan is to create paid “reader-leader” internships for Black high school students to read to younger students.

Kidner, who is white, says she developed the idea when trying to find story videos to show to her 15-month-old son, who is Black. Kidner says she realized that most of the people reading the stories were white women, and there were no videos of Black men reading.

Additionally, Kidner says she found that only 2% of educators in the United States are Black men. While Cleveland schools are somewhat better, with 3% of elementary and 4% of high school teachers being Black, Kidner says the ratio is unacceptable when 66% of CMSD students are Black.

With her reader-leader program, Kidner plans to not only increase interest among Black students in considering careers in education, she says she also wants to dispel the impression that reading is effeminate or uncool.

Kidner will use her prize money to recruit eight high school reader-leader interns this summer—billing it as an internship, even though they will be paid, to pique interest. “I found nobody wanted to list ‘educator’ as a career choice,” she says. “But when I say ‘internship,’ it’s a training launchpad.

Kidner says she hopes the experience will lead at least some of the students to consider the education field as a career.

The interns will then work on launching the program and enter grades 5 through 8 in the fall. “We’ll push books that are relatable—graphic novels, books about sports,” Kidner says. “We want to mae sure there are things that interest them and relates to their lives.”

The interns will also participate in loading the stories to the CMSD YouTube channel.

The other finalists, who each received $2,000, are:

  • Antwoine Washington and Michael Russell, who pitched in the Authentic Cleveland Experiences category for “MOCHA Gallery”—the Museum of Creative Human Art. They want to give Black visual artists a platform for career support and the freedom to tell their stories while connecting them to the community. Washington, of Richmond Heights, and Russell, of Cleveland, are professional artists who started the gallery in 2019.
  • Abigail Poeske and Rachel Hosler, who pitched for “An Ecosystem of Innovators” in the Economic Development category They want to create a talent-attraction program that connects university students on campuses across the region with local industry. Poeske, of Cleveland Heights, is a Ph.D. candidate at Cleveland State University and Hosler, of North Canton, is dean of experiential learning at Walsh University.
  • Laylah Allen and Ashley Welsh, who pitched for “Project Coping Box” in Hthe Health & Well-being category. They want to create a container with items that provide skills and tools for youth to calm themselves and express emotions. They hope to expand to those experiencing homelessness or impacted by the pandemic. Allen, of Bedford, and Welsh, of Cleveland, are life coaches and co-founders of The Missing Link, which helps youth address trauma.


  • Michelle Park, who pitched “Project DeLight: Dark Night, Stars Bright” in the Quality of Life category. She wants to spread awareness of light pollution and bring change within local communities. Park is a junior at Solon High School.


  • Lisa Rose-Rodriguez pitched “Planting Stems of Peace” in the Social Change category She seeks to reduce the incidents of firearm assaults in at-risk populations through harm-reduction models and planting trees. Rose-Rodriguez, of Cleveland, is an epidemiologist and public health professional.
  • Additionally, Jing Lauengco of Cleveland Heights was selected the winner in Accelerate’s Technovation Competition and received $3,500 for her pitch, “Other Brown Girl.” Lauengco, who was born in the Philippines, is a designer and brand strategist and wants to create a social-impact platform that creates deeper awareness, understanding and appreciation of multiculturalism.

Although Accelerate had to go virtual this year, organizers were pleased with both the participation and weather of great ideas presented.

“Providing Accelerate virtually this year opened new doors to connect presenters who have great ideas with people who can help them create positive change,” says Marianne Crosley, Cleveland Leadership Center president and CEO. “We would have preferred to be together in person, but this year people from across the country could attend. The event app’s Community Board was alive with interactions. Plus, people could watch all 31 pitches and become even more inspired to connect in a way to move initiatives forward.”

The public is invited to meet the Accelerate 2021 finalists today, Wednesday, March 3 from 12 p.m. to 12:45 p.m. during a Zoom Lunch Break. The event is free, but registration is requested.

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.