The kids are not all white

April 1, 2015

Each of us, at one time or another, has had to stop and ask who we are and what we stand for. It may occur during a period of self-realization, turmoil, or due to outside influences. It is hopefully an opportunity to reflect and pivot, and see ourselves with fresh eyes and less bias.

Reflection is not reserved just for individuals, but for corporations and institutions as well, and hopefully augers growth and development in previously unforeseen directions. Education is a prime example where change, manifested in racial, religious, ethnic, geographic and socioeconomic diversity, continues to both reflect the community at large, and lead students to where society should be, and is progressively moving.

Private and parochial schools were once the province of privilege, notably white privilege, as whites were the ones who established and sent their children to these educational institutions. Throughout metro Detroit, especially Oakland County, non-public schools opened their doors primarily for those with white skin coloring, economic viability and from Christian backgrounds. Homogeneity within classrooms was not only sought after, but expected. Some Catholic schools grew out of neighborhoods of Polish, Irish or Italian immigrants, but there were few in attendance in those early days who were not part of that demographic group.

Look to your right, look to your left, what did you see? Mirror images of yourself.

“I graduated from Mercy (High School) in ‘66, and we had no diversity. It was a white, Catholic girls school. It was the height of the baby boomers era. If we had a Protestant girl it was a big deal. Diversity in those days was Irish Catholic, Polish Catholic, Italian Catholic. We didn’t even have Hispanics,” said Cheryl Kreger, president of Mercy High School in Farmington Hills.

Fast forward to a new era in education and its attendant population, one which reflects the world at large. Today, the private and parochial schools in Oakland County draw well beyond their physical boundaries, encouraging diversity and recognizing that students of all colors, ethnicities and backgrounds benefit from being with one another. Kreger said that today they pride themselves on religious, socioeconomic, racial and geographic diversity, drawing from a 70 mile radius of communities “that produces a diversity that does reflect the world. There’s such value to diversity. It’s a very rich and abundant way to view the world.”

As Sister Bridget Bearss, head of schools at Academy of the Sacred Heart in Bloomfield Hills, noted, “Diversity is part of our mission.”

“To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions,” Peggy McIntosh wrote in ‘White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack’. “The silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political tool here. They keep the thinking about equality or equity incomplete, protecting unearned advantage and conferred dominance by making these taboo subjects. Most talk by whites about equal opportunity seems to me now to be about equal opportunity to try to get into a position of dominance while denying that systems of dominance exist...Individual acts can palliate, but cannot end, these problems.”

She writes about how just having been white has been “like an invisible weightless backpack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks” throughout her life, providing privilege she had never sought and never thought about.

“Having described it, what will I do to lessen or end it?” she asked.

So too, do schools, continually on a mission to reduce the legacy of white privilege and its attendant isolation and discrimination.

Metro Detroit private and parochial schools recognize they are the conduit for students to the world at large, a planet no longer representing an “Upstairs, Downstairs” world. “The world has changed. We’re preparing these girls to enter the world today, and universally, everything is very diverse,” said Karen Moore, president of Ladywood High School in Livonia, an all-girls Catholic school which reaches out 40 miles into western Oakland County, reflecting geographic diversity. “We spend time learning about different cultures and the importance of valuing different cultures. It’s important to be inquisitive about the world, rather than fearful and judgmental. I believe it’s a great way to explore the world through other people.”

ISACS, the Independent Schools Association of Central States, is a membership organization of more than 230 independent schools from 13 states of the Midwest region, including Michigan, and several local private and parochial schools are members. ISACS not only does a full-scale accreditation program for each member school every seven years, but offers a bi-annual diversity summit dedicated to the support and extension of diversity and equity initiatives at the school level, as well as resources and information and mentoring services. They also help track levels of minority attendance in their member schools.

“All of multiculturalism can be dealt with as part of a trend. What was once considered ‘majority’ or ‘minority’ has shifted. There are definitely more students of color than 15 or 20 years ago, representing the similarity to society as large,” said Carla Young, director of Community and Multicultural Affairs at Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills. 

She said that currently 35 percent of attending students identify as students of color, meaning racially or ethnically non-white. “We don’t identify or classify for the families. Once they’re enrolled, we ask families to self-report and help us to report our statistics to NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools), because they keep all of the stats.”

Cranbrook, like Detroit Country Day School in Beverly Hills, was born in the early days of the 20th century; Cranbrook in 1904, Detroit Country Day in 1914. Cranbrook was first established by Detroit News publishing mogul George and Ellen Booth, and named for Cranbrook, Kent, England, where George’s father was born. Country Day began at founder’s F. Alden Shaw’s mother’s kitchen table, but soon relocated to Detroit’s affluent Palmer Woods. Each school initially strived to educate children of privilege, meaning primarily white, Christian, with non-immigrant status. 

“A hundred years ago, the class pictures tell the story, and our students recognize it as such and how important diversity is today,” said Taneka Singleton, an upper school English teacher at Detroit Country Day School. “One student said during our Diversity Club, during the context of why it’s so important to be part of such a diverse school community, ‘I can’t imagine what I would be like if I had not had an opportunity to be a member of such a diverse school community.’” 

Today, each school has worked hard to expand beyond their initial boundaries, refusing to be categorized as “rich person’s schools.” At Cranbrook Schools, Young said almost 32 percent of students receive some kind of financial aid, part of an increase in demonstrated need for financial aid. “When the economy shifted, there became an increase in requests for financial aid. We try to figure out if we have the appropriate needs to match for the applicant or existing student.”

At Country Day, 23 percent receive some type of guided tuition. While 50 percent of Country Day families choose not to identify their racial/ethnic background, 27 percent identify as white/Caucasian; 13 percent as Asian; 5 percent African American; 3 percent multiethnic; and 2 percent Middle Eastern.

“Because financial aid is need-based, there are all races, ethnicities, genders receiving financial aid,” Young said. “We see families of color who can afford to attend Cranbrook, and Caucasian families who are need-based.”

Changing the makeup of schools throughout the area has mirrored societal efforts for schools to reflect the tenor of the times, to move well beyond the “tokenism” of the 1970s. 

John Birney, president of Brother Rice High School in Bloomfield Township, said, “Racism is seen as so horrible today, not like in the ‘70s where it was so explosive. Today, it’s been our experience, there’s a taboo about it to students, like there is for students regarding drinking and driving. It’s much more that they’re buddies. Race represents much less of a separator than it once was.”

The Catholic boys school, established in 1960, didn’t see its first African American student until 1968. “We were a fairly lily white school for our first five or six years,” Birney acknowledged. “Clearly, we’re no longer a lily white school. Today we have many blacks, Asians and Chaldeans. There is much more diversity than there ever was, but it was a gradual experience. We also have great geographic diversity, with students from Grosse Pointe, Eastpointe, Oxford, Milford, downriver, Pontiac, all over the metro area. We have exchange students from Korea, China and Spain.”

Birney said Brother Rice, despite being located in Bloomfield Township, was a “blue collar school in the 1960s. Our tuition then was $200, $300 a year. A kid could work a summer job and pay for it. Today, very few could do that. In 2015, we’re not a rich kid’s school, but we’re not a poor kid’s school. We’re a reflection of Oakland County today.”

He said regarding socioeconomic diversity, “We’re a private parochial school, and we charge the going rate, which is not cheap. About a third of the parents can write a check for the whole tuition and do. Another third of parents can write a check over two or three checks. Another third scrape together checks, financial aid, scholarships. There is a wide range of people who come here. They all want a Catholic private school experience.”

Catholic Central, now in Novi, was originally founded in the 1920s and 1930s by Irish immigrants in Detroit. “They didn’t consider themselves privileged,” said Father John Huber, president of the boys’ Catholic high school. “Ninety years ago, it was pretty working class. It was an immigrant group seeking a place. Today, it’s not just white Irish, although we still do have quite a few Polish, Irish and Italians. Our number one immigrants today are Arabs, of various Christian denominations, notably the Eastern rites. There are Chaldeans, Lebanese, Albanians, Armenians, from the Polish National Church, and even a little bit of Muslims attending. From the Arab point of view, it’s great to have so many others of Arab descent here when there is so much discrimination against people of Middle Eastern descent.”

Father Huber said today the school is comprised of 20 percent of minority heritage, whether Arab, African American, Indian, Asian, and a growing number of Hispanics, a number of which speak only Spanish in their homes. 

Of the overall school population, he said 30 percent receive some kind of financial aid, totaling $1.2 million a year. He is proud to note that his diverse student body raises a portion of it. 

“The students have raised $445,000, all of it going into tuition assistance,” he said.

One of the things Huber said he is most pleased about, which he said is a difference from other schools he has been in, “I am pleased to say when you walk in the cafeteria, you don’t see one ethnic group at a table. While kids may sit with their teammates, there is diversity in each of these groups, a subculture in each that reflects the community. There really aren’t any cliches. The friends you make are the ones you make in your classes, who you swim with, you’re in Quiz Bowl with, on the football team with. The kids really love and support each other. It’s a culture cultivated over decades, passed down from seniors to freshman. We promote the whole notion of brotherhood, from the beginning of the school year. It culminates in – you’re all brothers here. Each student has 1,069 brothers.”

Brother Rice’s Birney said their Band of Brothers program, adopted six years ago, similarly breaks down many invisible walls of exclusion.

“It’s like old homeroom programs, where each meet for a few minutes at the beginning of each day,” he said. “We wanted seniors to demonstrate mentorship to underclassmen, particularly freshman, for them to develop camaraderie with upperclassmen. A majority of our students see what they have in common with each other, rather than what separates each other.”

While there are some affinity groups, of ethnically-like groups of students sitting with one another, “like at other schools, we have some of that,” Birney said. “They’re not exclusive. You’ll see white students join black students. Although I do wish there was more integration.”

By definition, an affinity group is a group formed around a shared interest or common goal. Academy of the Sacred Heart’s Sister Bearss noted it does happen, “but we neither encourage nor discourage it.” 

Kreger at Mercy High concurred. “Some affinity groups are by design. Girls gravitate to their friends. We work to bridge any exclusions,” she said. Yet, she said, her student population celebrates their heritage, representing Indians, Chaldeans, Arabs, African Americans, Hispanics, Polish, Irish, Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese, some of whom are studying from abroad.

Today, many local schools have international students from countries across the globe. Just as the opportunities for international travel over the last several decades have altered the perspectives of Americans, echoing Thomas Friedman’s book ‘The World is Flat’ which analyses globalization and its benefits, so too do students benefit from sharing the classroom with students from around the world. 

Cranbrook and Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, a Catholic boys college prep school in Orchard Lake, each have a boarding component. Other schools arrange for home stays with local families for foreign students. About a third of Upper School students at Cranbrook board on campus, coming from all around the country, and countries including China, Taiwan, Mexico, Europe, the Middle East and other countries. St. Mary’s has students from around Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, California, Florida, and North Carolina, as well as China, Taiwan, Mexico, Ukraine, Poland, Canada, Italy and Central America. 

Cranbrook’s Young said that when affinity groups happen “it’s neither good nor bad unless the groups outside interprets it or uses it badly. Often, the observation (of the group) carries different meaning by those who observe them.

“Affinity groups can be a touchstone, like going home,” she continued. “When like-experienced groups meet, often for them, it’s comfort. It’s who you let your hair down with. But it can be disconcerting when you walk into the cafeteria and see all of the Chinese students together speaking Chinese. You feel like you can’t sit down with them. But, for them, they work so hard all day to speak English, they want a time to relax and speak Chinese with one another.”

She noted it’s very different than having “separate but equal” laws, which was a legal doctrine in U.S. Constitutional law that justified and permitted racial segregation as not being a breach of the Fourteenth Amendment, requiring equal protection under the law, which was overturned in 1954 with Brown v. Board of Education.

“There’s something to being with your home culture during periods of rest and restoration, as long as it’s not excluding others,” said Bearss from the Academy of Sacred Heart. “Inclusivity is what we’re seeking, and we expect that. After all, in the era and time we’re in, where students see themselves as part of a global world, there’s almost no one left who is 100 percent white, or 100 percent anything.”

“We’re pretty diverse for a Catholic prep school,” said headmaster Cormac Lynn, of the school which was originally founded in Detroit by Polish immigrants “who would pull them out of bars and factories to educate them, and maybe educate some priests along the way.” 

The boys aren’t being pulled out of bars or factories today. “They’re all trying to make good choices, get into colleges, being the best kids they can be,” Lynn said, noting they attract local students from all over Oakland County and the metro area. “They’re not wealthy, but they’re not from want.”

He sees a greater tendency towards affinity groups at the beginning of freshman year, when students don’t know one another as well. “We don’t have student organizations with the intent of creating diversity, but our student council is very diverse. We see more diversity at lunch tables as they have classes together, play on teams together, and become friends.” 

The curriculum does not play on diversity, Lynn said. “Our curriculum focuses more on what makes us similar than on what makes us different,” he said. “Our focus is on being a St. Mary’s Man first.”

Roeper School in Bloomfield Hills is one school which has always been focused on diversity. “Diversity is, and has always been, key and core to our philosophy, which came from our founders, who were German Jews surviving from the Holocaust,” said Carolyn Lett, Diversity and Community Programs Coordinator for Roeper. “We want to empower people to take ownership. We ask students, how do you become a citizen of the world. It is always an ongoing topic of conversation for us. For us, it didn’t just happen with Ferguson or with Dr. Martin Luther King. It’s systemic. So you see the world not just through your lens, but through my lens.

“We’re hoping students have a mirrored experience in our curriculum and in their experience in the school, and that the mirror reflects yourself and others,” Lett said. “The beauty is when it comes together and you see beyond, and you see through your experience and understand someone else’s. It’s always our goal to own up to all parts of your identity. We use the metaphor of the iceberg – you may see only 10 or 15 percent of the iceberg. We want to see the 90 percent that’s under the water.”

“I would like to think our students are understanding more how the world works and their role in it,” said Young. “A community that is more homogenous is limited to what is there. When you think about what diversity offers, it’s diverse thinking, and diverse problem solving. We all understand that we grow from having multiple perspectives. We all benefit from that.”

“I’m always amazed at how much further along this journey the students are than we are,” noted Country Day’s Singleton. “They are teeming with ideas for promoting and celebrating diversity. They are so accustomed to voices and people that are different from their own cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds, and knowledgable with their friends. They open their world to the exposure beyond their backgrounds, and they are well-versed and empathetic and prepared to contribute to the intellectual environment.”

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