Michigan is one of only three states in the nation with no anti-bullying law in place yet. But that hasn’t stopped The Roeper School, with campuses in Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills, from taking action.
For the past five years, faculty and interested parents have come together by way of the SEED Project (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity for an Inclusive Curriculum) to target any form of bullying within their school system. This includes LGBT bullying which has gained national attention following a rash of teen suicides.
“It’s more than just anti-bullying,” says Carolyn Lett, campus and diversity coordinator at The Roeper School since 1993. “It’s about educating ourselves and parents to understand someone else’s experience, privilege or struggle. It’s about how we view ourselves when dealing with various issues of diversity that we face like race, gender, sexual orientation, disability or class, and how that message is passed on to the children.”
This has been The Roeper School way from the beginning when it was founded in 1941 in Detroit by George and Annemarie Roeper, noted German educators. It moved to Bloomfield Hills in 1946 and was reorganized as a coeducational day school for gifted and talented children, recognizing that giftedness is manifested in many ways.
“Students do not always feel safe and supported at school. We have a responsibility as faculty and as parents to change that. It’s not OK for students to feel afraid or isolated. Students know that they can go to an adult here who will accept them in a safe and comfortable environment,” says Lett about The Roeper School, which enrolls more than 570 students from 60 communities throughout the greater Detroit metropolitan area representing.
The National SEED Project was planted almost 25 years ago by founder and co-director Peggy McIntosh, associate director of the Wellesley Centers for Women. The American feminist and anti-racist activist wanted to help teachers create their own year-long, school-based seminars on making school climates, K-12 curricula, and teaching methods more gender-fair and multi-culturally equitable.
“She (McIntosh) was a pioneer who asked questions like, ‘How can we change the state of our world?,'” says Lett. “We have been facilitating conversations about our systems in place and we are always looking for opportunities to educate students and be a part of the process.”
That requires attending a teacher-led faculty development seminar, which has been established in public and private schools throughout the U.S. and in English-speaking international schools. Lett explained that the week-long SEED training prepared her to openly address complex diversity issues once a month during the school year with faculty and parents through articles, videos, books, poetry, interactive exercises, and conversation.
“We’re all teachers whether it’s in school or in our own homes. We ask our faculty and parents not to just talk about it, but to be about it,” says Lett.
African-American lesbian parents, Stephanie Holloway and Leseliey Welch are Ferndale residents, but chose The Roeper School for their daughter at the age of three.
“Even at the preschool stage it was important for her to be in a place where people weren’t going to make fun of her, where she wouldn’t hear anything that would damage her self-esteem,” says Holloway. “We haven’t ever run into any issues of bullying, but we know what’s out there and did not want her to have to endure that at all, which is why we looked long and hard at different schools and Roeper was the best bet for us.”
As minorities, participating in the SEED Project has changed how these women feel about people in general.
“We are more aware of what people have in common even though our experiences are so different. We learned so much about ourselves that was kind of unexpected. Not only did we explore other people and their prejudices, but we realized through open and honest dialogue that we’re carrying around some of this stuff too,” says Holloway.
That type of open and honest environment is the reason why Helen Slade, retired Middle School Girls Athletic Director and PE teacher at University Liggett School in Grosse Pointe Woods, decided to come out.
“At first I was afraid, but If I can’t be truthful and authentic, what am I relaying?,” says Slade, originally from England who became a U.S. citizen in 2010. “If I was in a safe environment when I was younger, I may have figured things out sooner.”
This was one of her motivations for bringing the SEED Project to Liggett following a workshop run by The Roeper School faculty where Slade was introduced and impressed by Lett.
“It was life-changing,” says Slade in her late 50’s. “SEED helps create an environment that allows you to speak your truth and be respected for it. This program has helped faculty be more authentic with each other in becoming role models for students. More importantly, it helps parents see that their children are who they are and can be accepted.”
Upper School Director Lisa Baker admits that most people don’t know what a fabulous place The Roeper School is.
“It’s a responsive and wonderful space unlike any other school I’ve worked in” says Baker, adding that she uprooted her partner of 20 years and their son from Montgomery County, Maryland for this job. “Roeper embraced my family to the point where I don’t even think about it anymore because it doesn’t have to be a factor. It’s the most freeing experience.”
Baker describes how the SEED Project, which she underwent about four years ago, has made her a better educator.
“As a human being, I can relate to what the students are experiencing. I can remember being a teenager. We have to understand ourselves well enough to be able to interact with the students. It can’t be about you. It’s about them.”
She also explained why The Roeper School will continue to move forward.
“Our commitment to diversity is in the foundational documents of the school. It means we aren’t resting. The worst thing is to think you have it all down. Nobody ever stops growing, thinking, and changing. I’m unwilling to accept that we are anything but lifelong learners,” says Baker. “The SEED Project is not making a major shift in our environment. We are already extremely accepting. It’s just making us a little bit better at it.”