Sam Zigrossi was reflecting on his family background. His father and both sets of grandparents immigrated to the United States from Italy, and the new life that they built for themselves here led Sam to believe that education is “how you can make your way in the world.”
It’s hardly surprising to hear Sam discuss the connection between education and equity, considering that he has enjoyed a productive career as an educator, including five years as a high school math and science teacher, earning a Master’s degree in Educational Administration, and facilitated adult education for years working with IBM.
Sam at last crossed paths with members of the Charles A. Dana Center at The University of Texas at Austin while representing IBM in the development of Texas’ statewide math and science standards for education (which would eventually become the TEKS standards). The Dana Center’s mission to create educational equality stuck in his mind, and he made his way here after retiring from IBM. Sam eventually worked 15 years as a Program Director for The Dana Center, which also houses Literacy First.
Sam first became familiar with Literacy First when it was still in its infancy. Due to organizational structure at the Dana Center, Literacy First even reported to Sam for a while. “I was never in charge of Literacy First,” he’s quick to point out. “Mary Ellen’s always been the key focus.” He did, however, learn as much as he could about ACE’s tutoring model and our results during a formative part of our history.
As one might expect from a math and science enthusiast, Sam became most enthusiastic about our focus on research and outcomes assessment—maybe even a little too enthusiastic, to hear him tell it. He occasionally accompanied Literacy First to meetings with district and school personnel in our early years, and he fondly remembers one particular meeting with school district staff in which his advocacy became more fervent than usual. “I think that was the last time Mary Ellen ever asked me to go with her to meet the district,” he recalls with a laugh.
Needless to say, Sam is thrilled to have watched us deepen our roots in the community and become a valued support service for multiple school districts over the years. He may be retired from the Dana Center now, but his support for Literacy First continues. “I use your stories everywhere I go because it works, and I’ve got the research to prove it,” he says. Lately he has remained involved with us not only as an advocate but also as a donor. When asked why he donates, Sam gives a straightforward answer: “I know that whatever I give will be used in a way that is productive and effective.”
Even in retirement, Sam continues to work toward equality through education. He now tutors students who struggle with math from grade 3 through high school—and says he sees the need for ACE’s literacy tutoring all the time. In particular, he points to a test that he recently gave to his students: going over each question with the students after the test, Sam realized that over half of the time students hadn’t give the wrong answer because they didn’t have enough mathematical knowledge. Instead, they missed questions because they didn’t have the reading comprehension skills to understand what the questions were asking.
Sam thinks Literacy First is a perfect answer to closing this achievement gap in reading skills. He thinks that, the entire program “has been really well thought out and the staff is always looking for ways to improve it…it’s just a really neat program. I truly believe that education is the great equalizer.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.