These diverse Metro Detroit schools are also among the state's best

The world is becoming increasingly diverse. And leaders at top local schools say they need to reflect that diversity for students to be successful.

Through educational opportunities, committees, events, and more, some of the best schools across Metro Detroit are also some of the most diverse in terms of student demographics and educational offerings, working to bring the real world into the classrooms.

The Roeper School, which has the Lower School in Bloomfield Hills and the Middle and Upper School in Birmingham, is among them. "We don't live in a bubble," says Carolyn Lett, diversity coordinator at The Roeper School. 

"The world is not always a pretty place, but we want (students) to be able to celebrate and embrace who they are, all parts of their identity. And you cannot do that and feel good in the world if you don't have that background and educational piece." 

Carolyn Lett, diversity and community programs coordinator
Here's a look at schools in the area that are working to build and foster a more diverse and inclusive student body and staff while providing a quality education.

Making a stronger community: The Roeper School, Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills

George and Annemarie Roeper, founders of The Roeper School, were religious refugees from Nazi Germany, an experience that helped shape the school's philosophy. Once in America, they wanted to found a school that would teach children to be caring, humane adults.

"They understood what it was like to have their identity taken from them," says David Feldman, head of The Roeper School. "Their philosophy tells us that education is about becoming your best self, learning more about about yourself so you can grow as an individual. But at the same time, you have an obligation, because of our interdependence, to help make a stronger community."

David Feldman, head of The Roeper School
The Roeper School offers SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) training for parents and staff. In the 12 years the nationwide education program has been implemented at the school, seven facilitators have been trained. Those, in turn have gone on to train the Roeper community. 

According to Lett, it's an intense training unlike any other diversity program in the country.

"This is about coming and examining self, about opening your eyes and expanding how you see the world, how you see each individual, and how now you're going to transform those interactions."

Recently, a parent told school staff about her SEED experience. As a Muslim woman married to a Christian man, she "thought she knew everything there was about diversity because she was experiencing it," Lett says. "But coming to the SEED program, it opened up her eyes to things that she was not aware of." 

Members of Roeper's Student Diversity Committee
Other initiatives at the school include a swimming program called Make a Splash, which recently marked its 10th anniversary. Through Make a Splash, Roeper provides free and reduced-cost swim lessons to predominantly African-American and Hispanic children who lack access to opportunities to learn how to swim. According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, African-American children are nearly six times more likely to drown than white children. And according to research by the USA Swimming Foundation, 64 percent of African-American children and 45 percent of Hispanic/Latino children have little to no swimming ability.

Roeper also has a variety of affinity groups for various faiths, races, sexual preference, and gender identity. "They help bring together conversations and discussion about issues so that there is a sense of comfort when you sometimes feel like the only," Feldman says. 

At a glance:
Type of school: Private, independent school for gifted students
Number of students: 585 in preschool through Grade 12
Number of communities served: 60 in Southeast Michigan
Percentage of people of color on faculty and staff: 33 percent
Source: The Roeper School

A global education: Detroit Waldorf School, Detroit

A typical day at Detroit Waldorf School starts with core subjects such as math, science, and social studies on a rotating block schedule. But that's where the similarities to a traditional school end.

From there students move on to specialty subjects such as world languages. German and Spanish are taught and students have to learn both; there is no choice.

That's because Waldorf uses a "whole-child approach," says Charis Calender-Suemnick, enrollment and outreach director.

"Our curriculum moves a little bit slower than a traditional school, especially with the introduction of Common Core where they have fourth-grade curriculum in second grade and then second-grade curriculum in kindergarten."

Charis Calender-Suemnick, enrollment and outreach director at The Waldorf School
Third grade students in Handwork Class at The Detroit Waldorf
But other subjects are introduced earlier or are totally unique to Waldorf. Calender-Suemnick adds students also learn cursive and study architecture, botany, zoology, chemistry, physics — many subjects that aren't taught until high school.

Middle school students will also go to local organizations such as Freedom House, a safety house for asylum seekers, or participate in cooking classes after school with a Korean chef who focuses on countries around the world that are experiencing high conflict.

Movement is also an essential component of the curriculum. Unique to Waldorf schools is Eurythmy, a movement art that makes speech visible where children will dance, flow, and move to poetry or other spoken word. Finally there's handwork such as cross-stitching and knitting. By eighth grade they learn to make their own clothes.

Detroit Waldorf is launching their strategic plan and one of the four categories is diversity, which is "vital" for the students, Calender-Suemnick says.

"Moving into this global community and work and just being a human being of the world, that's really woven into our mission statement, into our language here, having this interest in each other," Calender-Suemnick says.

At a glance:
Type of school: Independent, nonprofit Pre-K through 8th grade school that integrates arts into academics, emphasizing a ‘whole-child approach’
Number of students: 250
African-American (includes students who are more than one race): 40 percent
Hispanic/Latino/Asian-American/Native American: 10 percent
Caucasian: 50 percent (includes 10 percent international students)
Number of ZIP codes served: 60
Percent of students receiving financial aid: 45 percent
Source: Detroit Waldorf School

Creating 'change agents': Washtenaw International High School and Middle Academy, Ypsilanti

In Joslyn Hunscher-Young’s social studies class at Washtenaw International High School in Ypsilanti, her freshmen students were sharing the challenges they faced in interacting with students from different backgrounds, sometimes for the first time.

"They really felt like it was challenging for them to engage with people that are different from them because neighborhoods are so segregated," Hunscher-Young says.

"So they really viewed coming to (Washtenaw International) as a chance for them to learn more about other people and other cultures and then also to build those relationships and connections."

Washtenaw International High School (WIHI) and Middle Academy, serving grades 6-12, foster that diverse and inclusive learning environment in a variety of ways. The International Baccalaureate curriculum, a rigorous, internationally recognized diploma offered at the schools, emphasizes raising cultural awareness and global engagement.

The school's first assembly of the 2018 academic year was focused on equity and inclusion. According to Principal Nhu Do, it addressed "systems in place that promote inequity. It's really important as a school that we be the change agents in those inequities."

The school's Diversity Alliance is a student-led organization that brings together leaders from several groups such as the Muslim Student Association, the Pan-African Student Union, the Gay Straight Alliance, and more. Through the alliance, students plan Diversity Days when the entire school "focuses on ways that we can start to engage in honest and open discussion about the diversity that exists around us and the importance of ways that we can call each other when difficult conversations come up," Do says.

Approximately 20 percent of students receive free and reduced-price lunch. To help serve economically disadvantaged students even further, the school's parent-teacher organization raises money and allocates more than $2,000 toward an anonymous scholarship program to reach out to staff and request funds for extracurricular activities such as yearbook, prom, and other things that "contribute to a positive high school and middle school experience," Do says.

Last year Washtenaw International started a pilot to take students on trips to visit schools such as University of Michigan, Wayne State, Eastern Michigan University, and Michigan State University.

"They essentially get to experience what students of privilege get to experience when they go to college visits," Do says. "We wanted to take away barriers and give them a chance to visit these schools," Do says.

At a glance:
Type of school: A sixth-12th grade public consortium International Baccalaureate school for academically focused students in participating school districts in Washtenaw County, Wayne County, Oakland County, and Livingston County. 
Caucasian: 52 percent
Asian: 29 percent
African-American: 13 percent
Hispanic: 4 percent
Languages spoken at home: 25
Economically disadvantaged: 16 percent
Source: Washtenaw International

'World-Class by 2020': Troy School District

A couple of incidents at local high schools a few years ago prompted the Troy School District to not just have conversations about diversity and inclusion, but to be proactive about it.

Each school in the district was already doing something in regards to diversity and inclusion, but separately. So administrators thought this would be a good opportunity to "bring all those individuals together and say, 'OK, we're doing these things independently. What can we do together as a district?'" says Superintendent Rich Machesky.

The idea for a Diversity & Inclusion Council came about after a consultant who was also a parent did some research and organized focus groups. After meeting with different members of the community, one of the recommendations was to create the council. 

"Where we saw a real usefulness was bringing groups from our high schools together, just begin having an open dialogue around what does it mean to be inclusive of one another," Machesky says. 

"When you don't know someone else, you don't know their background, you don't know their traditions, you don't know their culture, it's easier to separate yourself from them. … That's basically what we were finding was going on. Inappropriate, insensitive comments being made at our high schools. Obviously it wasn't acceptable and we just couldn't let stand."

Last year the district established its strategic plan, World-Class by 2020, and one of the key aspects of the plan is well-being.

"As part of that we believe the importance around inclusion, it lives within the context of that world-class characteristic," Machesky says, adding, "Our well-being initiative is really focused on being more globally focused."

The work around building a more diverse and inclusive school goes beyond having a council, he says. "This is work that we’re all responsible for, attending to the well-being of everyone in our organization, being responsible and respectful."

For example, making sure students are engaged in some meaningful way in activities both inside and outside of the school.

"We recognize that kids that are connected to their schools do better academically," he says. "They have better attendance and, frankly, have less issues as it relates to discipline. That has a huge impact as we think about activities for students that are not just sports and fine arts."

That's important for today’s student because "the world that our students are going to be interacting is becoming increasingly more diverse," he says, adding that in Southeast Michigan, there are multiple global companies, which brings in people from around the world to live here.

"It's so important for our kids to be engaged in an environment that sets them up for success when they get out of our schools."

At a glance:
Type of school(s): Public
Graduation rate: 92 percent
Economically disadvantaged: 14 percent
Students with disabilities: 8.5%
Asian: 35.98 percent
African-American: 4.84 percent
Hispanic/Latino: 3.37 percent
Two or more races: 3 percent
Caucasian: 52.5 percent
Source: Michigan School Data
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Read more articles by Dorothy Hernandez.

Dorothy Hernandez is a freelance writer and editor who frequently writes about food at the intersection of culture and business. She has contributed to NPR, Midwest Living magazine, Eater, and a variety of other publications. Visit her website and follow her on Twitter @dorothy_lynn_h.