As the world becomes increasingly diverse, local schools are aiming not just to be successful in a diverse global environment, but also to be leaders and catalysts for change.
Through educational opportunities, committees, events, and more, some of the best schools in Washtenaw County are also some of the most diverse in terms of student demographics, including race, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation. Here’s a look at local schools that are working to build a more diverse and inclusive student body and staff while providing a quality education.
Creating 'change agents'
Washtenaw International High School and Middle Academy, Ypsilanti
In Joslyn Hunscher-Young’s social studies class at Washtenaw International High School (known as WiHi) in Ypsi, freshman students have shared 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 our neighborhoods are so segregated," Hunscher-Young says. "So they really viewed coming to (WiHi) as a chance for them to learn more about other people and other cultures and then also to build those relationships and connections."
Creating and fostering a diverse and inclusive learning environment is at the heart of WiHi's rigorous, internationally recognized International Baccalaureate curriculum, according to principal Nhu Do.
The school’s first assembly of the academic year was focused on equity and inclusion, Do says, and it addressed "that there are systems in place that promote inequity and it's really important as a school that we be the change agents in those inequities."
WiHi's student-led Diversity Alliance brings together leaders from several student 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 in when difficult conversations come up," Do says.
Approximately 20 percent of students receive free and reduced-price lunches, Do says. And to help serve economically disadvantaged students, the school’s PTO raises money and allocates more than $2,000 toward an anonymous scholarship program to help students who need a little extra help paying 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 WiHi started a pilot to take students to visit schools such as the University of Michigan, Wayne State University, 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."
WiHi at a glance:
Type of school: Public consortium International Baccalaureate high school and middle school for academically focused students enrolled in any Washtenaw County school district excluding Dexter.
Racial demographics: 52 percent Caucasian, 29 percent Asian, 13 percent African-American, 4 percent Hispanic
Languages spoken in students' homes: 25
Economically disadvantaged: 16 percent
'Planting seeds that will take root'
Greenhills School, Ann Arbor
Over the years, Greenhills School teachers Kelly Williams and Nadine Hall have seen the impact of what learning in a diverse environment can do for their graduates. There was the young white man who confronted racism after taking a leadership role in his fraternity by having conversations about how to make fraternity culture more inclusive. Then there was a young gay woman of color who graduated from Yale recently with a double major in economics and African-American studies. She now works for a high-powered consulting firm with the goal of focusing on diversity.
"One consistent refrain we hear from Greenhills alums is that they feel much more prepared than many of their peers in college to have discussions about diversity, equity, and social justice issues both inside and outside of the classroom," Williams and Hall told Concentrate in an email. "We like to think about the work of the diversity program at Greenhills as planting seeds that will take root and grow as students continue the path of lifelong learning into adulthood."
The two teachers are co-directors of the school's Office of Diversity. The school formally hired for the position in 2005 and since then it’s expanded to have two faculty members manage the office.
As co-directors, Williams and Hall design student-centered programming that aims to promote acceptance and awareness of diversity in the community and beyond. There are also opportunities for faculty professional development and community engagement.
Greenhills has many student clubs and affinity groups at both the middle school and high school level including Diversity in Action, Students Organized Against Racism, the Gay/Straight Alliance, African American Focus, South Asian Awareness Network, and LGBTQ+ Affinity Group. Students in these groups address diversity topics and personal experiences, help plan events and lunch conversations such as "Dine and Discuss" and the Martin Luther King Jr. Day all-school assembly, and hold organizational responsibilities for the school-wide Annual Diversity Symposium.
Faculty and staff also participate in diversity-related professional development opportunities. Last year, for example, teachers completed a three-hour workshop on how to support LGBTQ students that included better understanding pronoun use and the terminology that students use to describe their sexualities and gender identities.
Greenhills at a glance:
Type of school: Independent private school for grades 6-12
Students of color: 49 percent
Percentage of student body receiving financial aid: 17 percent
Annual tuition: $24,350 (middle school) and $24,900 (high school)
'Diversity is a strength'
Ann Arbor Public Schools
Every year, Ann Arbor Public Schools' (AAPS) Angell Elementary holds an International Night to celebrate the 40-plus countries students hail from. The event includes a world market, a food buffet, classroom exhibits and displays, and a Parade of Nations, in which students stand on stage with flags and share facts about their country.
Angell principal Gary Court recalls an exchange he had with a parent from Iran at an event years ago.
"He said that he was touched, moved, and greatly affected that as part of our Parade of Nations, his country was recognized and honored," he says. "He related that back in Iran, the USA was regarded as evil and an enemy and students of America would never be recognized or dignified. But here at this Parade of Nations, his children and his country were accepted and acknowledged."
Angell's students are 30 percent Asian, 15 percent multiethnic, and 3 percent Hispanic. But Court emphasizes that diversity in and of itself is not "a strength unless we share a common mission, or purpose, which for us is striving for outstanding student achievement for all students. Bringing together families or students who are very disparate is of little significance unless there is a unifying bond and agreed-upon core values."
At Huron High School, the student body is even more diverse – 36 percent Caucasian, 21 percent Asian, 20 percent African-American, 15 percent multiethnic, almost 6 percent Latino, and 2 percent Arab-American. To address the achievement gap, AAPS offers the Rising Scholars program, which aims to create access and opportunity for underrepresented and high-achieving students and prepare them for life after high school.
The district also works not only to build a diverse and inclusive staff, but also to grow from within, according to superintendent Jeanice Kerr Swift. This year AAPS is preparing to launch a new program for high school students interested in education by taking a social justice approach.
"We want ... teacher candidates out of our student group who really are ready to change the world and they want to do that right here in Ann Arbor," Swift says.
Swift says "diversity is a strength" for AAPS. She notes that diversity and inclusion aren’t taught so much as they are values that students embody by being "open and inclusive and welcoming and celebrating each other."
"It really is who they are and it gives us a tremendous amount of hope for the next generation that our children are growing and learning and developing," she says. "Whether they remain here in Ann Arbor or they ship off to work or live or grow somewhere else ... they're going to (make a difference) in their environment, wherever that may be."
AAPS at a glance:
Type of school: Public
Racial demographics: 50 percent Caucasian, 14 percent African-American, 15 percent Asian, 4 percent Hispanic, 17 percent other
Languages spoken in students' homes: 85 (1 in 10 students comes from a home where English is not the first language)
Students whose homes are impacted by poverty: 1 in 4
Dorothy Hernandez is a freelance writer and editor based in metro Detroit.
All photos by Doug Coombe.