Robert L. Gross

Well-Grounded in High-Flying Singapore by Jay P. Goldman

Could a North Dakota farm boy with a smallish frame, bookish appearance, understated speaking voice and aw-shucks humility possibly be a good fit to lead a powerhouse, cosmopolitan private school for American students living abroad, whose governing board consists mainly of high-flying corporate executives and well-heeled attorneys?

The answer today is a decided yes, but the 12-member governing board of the resource-rich Singapore American School harbored serious doubts when Bob Gross submitted his candidacy for the top post five years ago. The school board’s search consultant assessed his chances so dimly against an experienced pool of international headmasters that Gross, then in his 18 th year as superintendent in Brainerd, Minn., had to pay his own way to Oregon for a preliminary interview.

“He was really the wild card,” admits Haywood Blakemore, who spent two terms as chair of the 3,130-student Singapore American School, where annual tuition runs $15,000.

But during a 2½-day site visit to the small Asian island Gross bowled over the high-charging board, in addition to select groups of faculty members, parents and students, as a thoughtful and humble educator rich in ideas and leadership skills on how to bring together a community behind an educational enterprise. What they landed when they offered Gross the Singapore superintendency (for more than twice what he earned in Brainerd) was an indefatigible public servant who throws every ounce of being into his mission.

Gross’s work ethic took on an almost mythic quality during his 31-year tenure in Brainerd. Always an early riser ever since his father, a lifelong farmer, assigned him the pre-dawn milking duties during his formative years in Napolean, N.D., Gross became such an early-morning fixture outside the locked front doors of the local YMCA at 6 o’clock en route to the office each day that the staff finally gave him his own set of keys.

The only one of five siblings to go to college, Gross accepted his first teaching job in Waubun, Minn., where he was assigned to run classes in business law, typing, physical education and health. It marked his first time ever outside his home state’s borders.

Such provincial beginnings certainly didn’t slow Gross’ rapid climb up the administrative ladder in the 7,300-student district in Brainerd, a rural tourist area two hours north of Minneapolis, where he and his wife likely will settle some day in retirement. His tenure as superintendent ran from 1981 to 1999.

In Singapore, where he leads a school on a 37-acre site that he admits has “all the resources we need,” the greatest challenge comes in keeping pace with the all-speed-ahead, achievement-oriented American transplants, who comprise 60 percent of the school’s enrollment. “This is a fast-track community and a fast-track board,” says Blakemore, a corporate lawyer whose two daughters attended the school.

The Singapore American School, the largest overseas school, is blessed with uncommon support. Most students come from two-parent households, and many mothers volunteer daily at the school. Class size is capped at 22 students from pre-kindergarten through senior year.

Gross transitioned relatively easily to the private, international school sector, even though his closest encounter with foreign affairs in central Minnesota came through his wife, a German teacher. He has brought along to Singapore some of the defining aspects of America’s schools—public debate of policies and practices and a commitment to include the small number of special-needs students in regular classrooms.

He’s been drawing raves from parents for his sensitive handling of some issues that would seem pretty foreign to colleagues back in the states. Often his deliberations relate in some way to the world’s unsettling geopolitical developments.

“Bob’s not afraid to make the tough decision, whether it’s getting rid of a teacher who’s not a good fit for our school, holding a county fair when some parents are concerned about SARS or security or deciding to send an athletic team to Jakarta or Manila for a competition,” says Shelley DeFord, the school board chair.

At the same time, Gross believes his 5½ years overseas have contributed ”ever more so” to a heightened appreciation for public education in America with its innovative programs to serve a diverse population and wide range of needs. “We can be more single-minded here,” he says.

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail:


Bio Stats:

Bob Gross

Superintendent, Singapore American School

Superintendent, Brainerd, Minn.


Greatest Influence on Career:
My farm background instilled a solid work ethic and an appreciation and respect for people regardless of their status or profession. These intrinsic values have clearly contributed more than anything else to any success I have enjoyed.

Best Professional Day:
The day that I received the call offering me the job as superintendent of Singapore American School. I feared my 31 years in one school district in Minnesota and my age (56) would discourage any good-sized international school from viewing me as a strong candidate.

Books at Bedside:
Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton; The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon; The Education of a Public Man by Hubert Humphrey; Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

Biggest Blooper:
Early in my career I was leading a parent meeting to explain our district’s sex education curriculum. I obviously went on far too long because a parent in the room finally interrupted me to say: “Mr. Gross, are you the only person in this room who knows anything about sex?”

A Reason Why I'm an AASA Member:
To maintain a strong awareness of educational change and initiatives that are taking place in the United States and to maintain contacts that can be helpful in resolving any number of issues that one encounters in a school leadership role.