‘A Catalyst for Change’

Michael Grossman, the founder of a two-year-old nonprofit organization called LiteracyToday, has no formal background in education. But that hasn't stopped the 55-year-old from coming up with a plan to boost reading levels for public-school students in one of the Garden State's most troubled cities – Camden, N.J.

Nor has it prevented Camden City Public Schools officials, state legislators and business executives who sit on his board of directors from thinking that Grossman – whose background lies in fundraising and public relations – just might be on to something.

But why Camden? Grossman grew up in Abington, and has no familial connections to the city that was once home to so many Jewish families.

"The fact that there's so much crime, the fact that the schools are so challenged, the fact that the poverty level is so high – being considered by some to be the poorest city in the country – to me, I see that as an opportunity," said Grossman, whose previous job was director of corporate relations for the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey.

"It's an opportunity," he added, "to be a catalyst for change."

Empowering Youth
Grossman, the father of two teenage boys who lives with his wife, Nancy, in Moorestown, N.J. – a stones' throw from Camden – said the program's goal is to "empower youth through the mentoring paradigm. It is creating a mentoring culture of older youth working with younger youth."

Rather than function on a volunteer model, the program hires teenagers to mentor and tutor younger students. Thus, the teens gain a much-needed after-school job, as well as professional skills, like creating a lesson plan. And more often than not, while helping others, the mentors' own reading levels improve in the process.

Since its inception in 2003, the program has served more than 300 kids. Each school year, roughly 15 students work with 80 students in two Camden charter schools – Academy Charter High School and Camden's Promise Charter School.

Students meet with their mentors for one hour, four days a week, and do everything from talk about problems at home to practice reading aloud, as well as listen to guest speakers from the community.

"The reading skills come as a result of the relationship-building. They come as a result of the kids feeling confident, trusting and comfortable with their mentors," said Grossman. "What's needed is an everyday culture that in some way is supportive of education."

Literacy Today employs a teacher at each site to train the mentors and oversee the program. Grossman, who raised just $35,000 last year for the the group's work, said that he recently applied for federal funding to increase the number of students served in Camden. He's also thinking about bringing the program to Philadelphia.

"These kids," he insisted, "don't have the benefit of a family behind them – for the most part – who have said that no matter what you do, no matter how much of a schmuck you are, we're still there, we love you."

Grossman, it seems, had his own mentor. From 1991 to 1997, he worked as Irvin Borowsky's executive assistant, during the years Borowsky established the American Interfaith Institute, which aims to foster understanding between Christians and Jews.

Grossman said he learned from Borowsky to reach out to people across religious, ethnic and economic lines, as well as how to communicate ideas.

Still, what made Grossman think he could make a difference in young people's lives?

"Modestly, I'm a smart Jew," he replied. "And I recognize the problem, and I recognize the solution."



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