Elad Gross helps give kids equal educational opportunities

2016 Unsung Hero Elad Gross. Photo: Yana Hotter

BY ERIC BERGER, STAFF WRITER

When the Ferguson-Florissant School District delayed the start of a new academic year after the fatal shooting of  Michael Brown in 2014, Elad Gross and other volunteers improvised, turning the local library into a school. 

Gross, who had been doing voter registration in the area, shifted to canvass the area for families who might be interested in sending their children to the library. He also recruited volunteers to help teach and run the school.

“He had literally reproduced a school in the library that was fully functional and had all these people volunteering,” said Tasha Kaminsky, who helped students work on art projects.

Gross, 28, had also just started working as an assistant attorney general for Missouri and was serving as president and CEO of Education Exchange Corps, an organization he founded in 2008 that helps at-risk children by providing them with educational opportunities. 

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He is someone who wakes up at 4:30 a.m., he said.

As a government official and leader of a nonprofit, Gross is committed to helping people who come from low-income backgrounds, say those who know him. 

“What really strikes me about him is how much of himself and his time he gives,” said Kaminsky, who also serves as director of programming at Kol Rinah.

Gross started the project that grew into Education Exchange Corps while studying economics and political science at Duke University. The North Carolina school offered grants to students who wanted to pursue service projects such as providing microfinance opportunities for women and families or establishing community health infrastructure. Students have done both domestic and international projects.

“You could go anywhere in the world, but I asked if I could just go home, and I actually ended up recruiting students to come with me” in the summer of 2008, Gross said. He and the seven other students served as teaching assistants in the summer school at Lexington Elementary School, where only 6 percent of students were proficient in math in 2014, according to the Missouri Assessment Program. 

Gross has served as a counselor at SummerQuest, a camp at his high school in Clayton, and “loved working with kids.” But the program of art, music and theater was only an option for some students.

“I wanted to work with kids who didn’t have that kind of opportunity,” said Gross, who attended Solomon Schechter Day School here until eighth grade.

The next summer, Gross expanded the program, recruiting students from St. Louis University and the University of Missouri-St. Louis and placing them at Gateway Elementary and Stix Early Childhood Center in the St. Louis Public Schools district. The program now also helps during the school year, placing part-time volunteers in the classroom and offering free educational programming on weekends during the school year.

Gross said he is motivated by the “inequity of opportunity” among children.

“I think one of the biggest justice issues is that there are some kids in certain areas that don’t have access to real opportunity,” he said.

In addition to helping in Ferguson, Kaminsky spoke during the organization’s summer academy as part of a three-week simulation in which children become world leaders. Kaminsky had studied nuclear proliferation. Gross suggested she talk about it to elementary school students.

“He did not want me to dumb it down,” said Kaminsky, who spoke in the basement of a church in north St. Louis.

By the end of the day, the younger students, who had read children’s books about escalation, were building missiles with construction paper and had decided they needed to “double down” on their country’s arsenal. Older students had decided that they needed to dispense of the weapons. 

Kaminsky said she had been skeptical but afterward realized that Gross had realistic expectations. 

“I don’t know if there’s another organization that actually believes with such ardency that these kids can do anything they want – someone just has to give them the materials and the time,” Kaminsky said.

Gross attended law school at Washington University while he was building his organization. He has now been working in the office of the attorney general for almost two years, spending much of his time on prison litigation work. He said the job has allowed him to reach people and places that he would not otherwise have access to, which helps his organization.

“Being able to share the experiences that I personally have had or the families I work with have had is really important,” Gross said.

In talking about his nonprofit experiences, Gross “promotes his cause in a very humble way,” said Marvin Beckerman, the retired director of Citizenship Education Clearing House, a civic education program at UMSL. Beckerman met Gross in 2015 at a Kol Rinah Mitzvah Day, where Gross was seeking book donations. Beckerman has since stayed connected to the program and donated numerous books from his collection. 

“He really believes very deeply in the (idea) that he can inspire young people to make a difference in their community and the world and grow up to be upstanding citizens,” Beckerman said.


ELAD GROSS

Age: 28

Family: Parents, Mark and Margalit; brother, Ido; sister, Anat

Home: Southwest Garden neighborhood

Occupation:  Assistant attorney general for Missouri; president and CEO of Education Exchange Corps, a nonprofit he founded in 2008 that helps at-risk children by providing them with educational opportunities

Fun Fact: Gross has been a member of fight clubs in North Carolina and St. Louis. According to Gross, the first rule of Fight Club is not that you don’t talk about Fight Club, but “to cut your nails.”