They were visionaries, humanists and educators who believed that “all human beings have two central tasks: to come to understand themselves and to discover how they will contribute to the world.”
The late George and Annemarie Roeper, founders of the Roeper School in Bloomfield Hills, started something unique and unprecedented in 1941 when they held their first classes — where students have a voice to shape their education — on Woodward Avenue in Highland Park. The school moved to Detroit in 1942, then to Bloomfield Hills in 1946. The couple’s 75-year legacy of learning continues to this day.
“We are the oldest school for gifted education in the world, and the only one that serves students in pre-kindergarten through high school,” says David Feldman, Roeper’s head of school. “This is a school that evolves every day with every child. The core values stay the same; the content of what you teach changes every second of every day. But learning how to learn, learning how to think, those are constants.”
The diverse group of students who attend Roeper are among the top 5 percent nationally, determined through IQ testing and the admissions process. The private school’s educational philosophy focuses on nurturing students’ social and emotional development while emphasizing equal human rights and the importance of independent thinking. The concept grew out of George and Annemarie’s personal family experiences in Nazi Germany
Escaping The Holocaust
“The Bondys [Annemarie’s parents, Max and Gertrud] saw themselves as cultural Jews. They were German intellectuals,” Feldman explains. “At some point, it became very clear they couldn’t remain and be safe in Germany. George [not Jewish] obtained documents and, basically, got [his fiancee and her parents] out of Germany and into Switzerland. It saved them from what was to become the Holocaust.”
The Bondys, who had founded a progressive boarding school in Germany in 1920, went on to open a school in Vermont. Gertrud, a medical doctor and psychoanalyst, had trained with Sigmund Freud. Annemarie studied with Anna Freud in Vienna before she was forced to leave Germany. The jarring experience of being ethnically isolated and discriminated against by a murderous regime shaped Roeper’s guiding principles.
“I think it’s a credit to my parents and to the people who’ve carried it on. I think it’s a credit to their ideas that they were so enduring and in a way so deep,” says Peter Roeper, George and Annemarie’s son, who now lives in Oakland, Calif.
“Bloomfield Hills in 1946 was very rural, very conservative,” he continues. “The attitudes toward Germans were pretty negative and yet they were able to start this school in Bloomfield Hills, which was not very accepting at the time. I think they were able to succeed because they didn’t foist their views on the external world.”
Peter was born on the day the Roepers purchased the Bloomfield Hills property. He spent the first four years of his life living with his family in the school’s main building; he attended Roeper until eighth grade. He later studied at his grandparents’ boarding school in Vermont and went on to have a successful career in public health.
A New Generation
Today, approximately 580 children attend the Roeper School. Tuition is costly (between $20,000 and $28,000 per year), but officials say the school spends about $2.5 million annually on need-based financial aid for roughly 40 percent of students.
Classes are structured differently than public schools and include interactive, experiential learning. Students take core classes (math, English, science, etc.), but also choose from among numerous electives like computer programming, 3-D printing and performing arts. There is also an emphasis on service projects and ongoing service to the community.
“No matter what race you are or where you come from, everyone is equal,” explains Sam Kramer, a Roeper student going into eighth grade. “I like the people; I like the teachers — I just like the whole school. It has helped me grow as a person, an athlete and a student.”
His mother, Anessa Kramer, an attorney and partner with the Detroit-based law firm Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn, was also a Roeper student. She noticed early on that Sam is a deep thinker who worries about world problems, and she felt Roeper would provide the right environment for him. Her younger son, Max, attends public school.
“I think the small class sizes and individualized curriculum here have made Sam thrive,” she says. “Jewish values, which really, to me, are human values, do permeate the school. There’s a certain humanity and a certain respect.”
Carolyn Borman, a retired Roeper teacher and middle school director, has daughters who are Roeper graduates and grandchildren who currently attend the school.
“There’s a lot of mythology about Roeper, that the kids are just running around doing whatever they want. That couldn’t be further from the truth,” she says.
“It’s not a place where discipline is imposed. The notion of what’s right and wrong is a shared discovery. Teachers know the kids, they respect them, and they allow them to make their own mistakes, but it’s all within a structure.”
The school has a series of celebrations planned to mark its 75th year. On Friday, Sept. 9, a special day of events will include a community lunch with dishes representing the many places, such as Italy, Japan, Detroit and Switzerland, where founders George and Annemarie lived; passing out 75th anniversary T-shirts; and taking a commemorative photo to include more than 700 students, teachers, staff and alumni.
During an all-school assembly, they will air a video montage of the school’s history and hear brief remarks from Feldman who will introduce the founders’ children: Karen, (class of 1960), Peter, (1963) and Tom (1961).
Also on Thursday, Roeper will join a worldwide event called “The Cardboard Challenge.” The project has inspired children across the globe to make incredible creations out of cardboard, found objects and tape.
Roeper’s project will challenge students to create an item that could help another person. The entire school will participate and guest engineers will be invited to assist.
Other events will take place throughout the school year, including a gala and Golden Apple Awards celebration at the Royal Oak Music Theatre on Feb. 17, 2017.
“Our 75th anniversary is an opportunity to connect with our history and to bring back people who have had an impact on the life of this school,” Feldman says. “But the thing I’m so excited about is where we’re going!”
Toward The Future
A flurry of construction activity is currently under way at the Roeper Middle and Upper School on Oakland Avenue in Birmingham. In May, crews broke ground on a 9,000-square-foot development project called the Learning Commons, being built to provide space for students to study independently and in groups. The high-tech facility will connect students with their peers across the country through high-definition videoconferencing. The school library is also being expanded significantly with wireless technology, group breakout rooms, a digital classroom and more. Construction is expected to be completed in spring 2017.
A capital campaign, dubbed Designing for the Difference, is expected to surpass its $4 million fundraising goal in the coming weeks, the largest single fundraising effort in the history of the school.
“Our goal is to prepare children for the unknown future,” Feldman says. “We are preparing children for jobs that don’t exist, to solve problems that we don’t know about.”
Peter Roeper believes his parents would approve.
“I think they would feel the traditions of humanism, attention to psychological needs and trying to develop the individual thinking capacity of children are being well maintained,” he says.
“I think they would be very proud. I think they would be rightfully proud.”
To learn more about the Roeper School and its many programs, go to www.roeper.org.
By Robin Schwartz, Contributing Writer
Photos by Jerry Zolynsky