by Susan Josephs
Several years into her career as a New York City high school English teacher, Laura Rebell Gross secured an informational interview with The Young Women’s Leadership School in East Harlem. As she walked through the groundbreaking all-girls public school, founded to help low-income students achieve college-bound success, she became deeply inspired by the sight of “all these girls in their uniforms. They seemed so excited about their school and right then and there I asked the principal for a job,” she recalls.
Gross eventually became the chair of the school’s English department and co-founded an affiliate charter school for girls in Rochester, N.Y. Today, she plays a crucial role in the school’s parent organization, the Young Women’s Leadership Network. As YWLN’s managing director of girls’ education, she oversees the development of new and existing schools, known as TYWLS, which include five in New York City and 13 affiliates located across the country. A fierce advocate for all-girls education, Gross also collaborates with officials from the New York City Department of Education and other agencies on initiatives that support the educational empowerment of girls in underserved communities.
"It is the most gratifying work in the world to see girls excited about what they’re learning."
“YWLN represents everything I care about in education,” says Gross, whose 2012 TEDx talk on “Educating the Whole Girl” can be found on YouTube. “We are disrupting the cycle of poverty for our students, leading them instead on a path to college graduation and career attainment.”
Crediting her leadership skills to 12 years as a classroom teacher and “not being easily rattled by the bumps in the road,” the 44-year-old, Brooklyn, N.Y.-based educator spends her days leading professional development trainings for school principals and overseeing such TYWLS programs as “Cool Women, Hot Jobs,” where speakers share career success stories with students. Married to Jonathan Gross and the mother of Hannah, 12, Julia, 9, and Maddie, 8, she sometimes has to “arrange doctors’ appointments at the office and answer work texts during dinner. But I feel so passionately about my work and I want my daughters to know that they too can follow their passions,” she observes.
Raised in Westchester, N.Y., Gross grew up with a strong Jewish identity and found powerful role models in her father, an attorney who fights for the rights of disenfranchised children in public schools, and her mother, a market researcher “who showed me how to have a career and a family. My parents were like-minded about making a contribution in the world,” she says.
At Tufts University, Gross majored in English and women’s studies and discovered her gift for teaching when she substitute-taught a class for one of her professors. “I could see how excited the students were by what we were talking about and I thought, ‘that’s what I want to do with my life,’’’ she recalls.
Initially aspiring to become a college professor, Gross changed her mind after a “life-changing experience” working with teenagers in New York City public schools through the arts education organization LeAP. “I realized this was the age group I was meant to work with,” she says, and received a Masters of Teaching degree from Brown University and became a high school teacher.
Fueled by a passion “to give back,” Gross currently serves on the boards of her local synagogue Congregation Beth Elohim and the Riley Sandler Memorial Foundation, which promotes empathy among children, particularly girls. “No matter what I do, education is my lifetime commitment,” she says. “It is the most gratifying work in the world to see girls excited about what they’re learning.