The Origins of The Roeper School

By Marcia Ruff, School Historian

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Schule Marienau, the Bondy school in Germany, 1930s.

The Bondys settled their school at Marienau, near Hamburg, in the spring of 1929.

George Roeper and Annemarie Bondy arrived in the United States on the eve of World War II, grateful to be alive. Annemarie, only 20 years old, was a German girl of Jewish heritage who had twice escaped the Nazis, thanks largely to George’s courage and astuteness in reading political conditions. George, a 28-year-old German graduate student, was not Jewish but because he helped the Bondys acquire the papers they needed to leave the country, he had had to flee on a moment’s notice to escape summary execution by the Nazi authorities.

George Roeper when he was a student at Marieanu in 1930.

George Roeper (right) when he was a student at Marieanu in 1930.

When Annemarie arrived in New York, rising before dawn on a chilly April morning in 1939 to watch as her ship passed by the Statue of Liberty, a feeling of safety washed over her for the first time in years. George, who was her fiancé, had come to America in November 1938 to find a property where Annemarie’s parents, Max and Gertrud Bondy, could establish a school and the family could begin to build a new life in America. After years of losses and fear, the family could finally glimpse a secure future.

Education was the logical choice for this idealistic, erudite family. Max and Gertrud had founded a successful boarding school in Germany in 1920 that was a radical alternative to the rigid, authoritarian schools that made up the German educational mainstream. George and Annemarie had both been educated in this idyllic setting.

Annemarie, seen here at age 15, was eight years younger than George.

Annemarie, seen here at age 15, was eight years younger than George.

But if education was the family’s most practical choice for making a living, it was also a passionately held mission, for they had all been rocked to the core by the speed and ferocity of the transformation of Germany under Adolf Hitler. How could a people of such intellectual and cultural attainments as the Germans embrace the Nazi agenda so quickly and so completely? The Germans were willing to upend their civic and judicial institutions, accept censorship and propaganda, demonize Jews and other minorities, and surrender their own rights of free speech and assembly and movement. It’s a question that baffles us still, but in 1939 it was a soul-shaking conundrum for the Bondys and George Roeper.

Annemarie on the balcony at Les Rayons, the Bondys’ school in Switzerland.

Annemarie on the balcony at Les Rayons, the Bondys’ short-lived school in Switzerland.

The family was determined to educate children so they would not grow up to become Nazis, or to acquiesce to other tyrants. It seems an almost absurd goal: who would educate people to become Nazis? But the truth is that an education that fails to teach children to think and speak for themselves, to recognize the humanity of those about them, and to be able to analyze and interpret events and policies clearly and compassionately leaves them vulnerable to demagogues and mass movements. At Marienau, their school in Germany, Max and Gertrud had been able to teach children these skills and they were committed to continuing their work in the United States.

A number of elements were critical to Max and Gertrud’s educational philosophy, but the most important was the belief that a school must nurture the social and emotional development of its students. Mainstream Western education was primarily focused on the transfer of skills and facts, ensuring that students read the accepted canon, knew the appropriate cultural referents, and acquired the vocational skills they needed for work. Social and emotional attention was primarily about making sure children learned to fit social norms.

The manifest from the ship that brought the Bondy family to the U.S. in 1939.

The manifest from the ship that brought the Bondy family to the U.S. in 1939.

Max and Gertrud rejected this narrow view. Gertrud was interested in the intersection of intellect and emotion because she was both a medical doctor and a psychoanalyst who had trained with Sigmund Freud and Otto Rank, one of the first women to do either. Rather than using psychoanalysis therapeutically for adults, Gertrud was interested in applying psychoanalytic insights, such as the role of the unconscious, the use of sublimation, and the development of sexual identity, to child development to create an environment that would support healthy growth.

The extended family often gathered at Windsor Mountain School, the Bondys’ school in Massachusetts: George, Annemarie, Gertrud, Max, Heinz and Ursula (Annemarie’s brother and sister), and Curt Bondy (Max’s brother).

For his part, Max had been shaped by his experiences with the German Youth Movement, the loosely organized but influential social movement that arose early in the 20th century among young upper-middle-class Germans. Rebelling against the prevailing authoritarian culture, young Germans formed small groups to hike, write and share poetry, and develop close, emotionally open friendships. The politics within the Youth Movement ranged from far left to far right, but they ascribed to a common aspiration of self-determination: “The free German youth want to shape their lives according to their own decision, on their own responsibility, and guided by their own inner truth.”

Max and Gertrud Bondy in the late 1940s.

Gertrud’s passion for the individual and Max’s passion for community made an inspired pairing. Together they founded a school where students could pursue the fundamental task of being human: to come to understand themselves and how they fit into the world. They did this by creating a supportive community in which teachers and students were respected as individuals and treated each other as equals. Democracy was critical: everyone participated in a governing council that voted on all decisions, from admissions to policy changes. There was a constantly articulated commitment to justice and to making the world a better place. The academic schedule was rigorous and focused on the future and social change. Drama, art, music, and dance were highly valued, and frequent community festivals celebrated everything from harvest-time to Max’s birthday. Physical activity and pleasure in natural beauty were integral, with skiing and hiking, swimming and calisthenics. It was all in pursuit of an education that would teach young people to “think for themselves but feel with the community.”

George and Annemarie married two weeks after she arrived in the U.S.

Barred from marrying in Germany, George and Annemarie married in New York City.

By the time the Bondys arrived in New York City in 1939, George had located property in Vermont where the family opened the Windsor Mountain School in the fall. By 1941, George and Annemarie, who had married shortly after arriving in this country, were looking for a place to make their own mark. They moved to Detroit when Annemarie was asked to direct a nursery founded by a prominent psychoanalyst and family friend, Editha Sterba. George opened the Roeper Grade School in conjunction with the nursery, and they set to work.

Their educational approach was rooted in the psychoanalytic orientation of their own upbringing. They believed that a strong sense of emotional security was the foundation of all learning and development, and that children needed to be understood as individuals. A Freudian perspective guided their understanding of children’s behavior, looking for motives in family dynamics, personality and unconscious reactions. Only by understanding why a child was doing something was it possible to guide their behavior wisely. They gave children respectful, intelligent attention, and offered a discovery-based education, so children could explore ideas and objects, cultivating their innate curiosity and independence.

George and Annemarie’s Detroit school was located in the New Center area from 1942-1946.

George and Annemarie’s Detroit school was located in the New Center area from 1942-1946.

George and Annemarie’s philosophy, as well as their reassuring and good-humored calmness, had enormous appeal for both children and parents. In postwar Detroit, a thriving, forward-looking city propelled by the booming auto industry and a sophisticated community of psychoanalysts, artists and intellectuals, they quickly became well-known and well-regarded. Within five years their school had outgrown three buildings in the city and they were able to purchase a large mansion and wooded property in still-rural Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

n 1946, with the help of parents and supporters, George and Annemarie purchased a large house in Bloomfield Hills for their school.

In 1946, with the help of parents and supporters, George and Annemarie purchased a large house in Bloomfield Hills for their school.

Their own upbringing amidst the natural beauty of Marienau led George and Annemarie to believe that all children should spend time in the country. They cobbled together a transportation system so that their students, almost all Detroit residents, could follow them north, refurbished the mansion over the summer into a school, and opened in the fall of 1946 under a new name, the City and Country School of Bloomfield Hills. They had 90 students from nursery through grade 6, almost twice as many as they had had room for in the city.

As the school’s enrollment steadily grew, George and Annemarie expanded the practice of their philosophy. Their abhorrence of injustice led them to integrate the school in the early 1950s, the first private school to do so in Michigan. They were early adopters of the Open Classroom method as a means of giving students a more individualized education. They democratized the school, bringing faculty and students into the decision-making process.

George and Annemarie in George’s office in Hill House, soon after moving in.

George and Annemarie in George’s office in Hill House, soon after moving in.

In 1956, George and Annemarie decided to make City and Country one of the nation’s first schools for gifted children. There was a tremendous interest in gifted children at the time, largely driven by Cold War anxiety about falling behind the Soviets. The Roepers believed that gifted children were not well understood and wanted to make sure that these children were given the chance to fulfill their own potential – not the agenda of a nation. Their approach to gifted education has had a major impact on the field over the years, leading educators to recognize that the complex emotional lives of gifted children defines them as much as their cognitive abilities.

The school, known then as City & Country School, was the first independent school in Michigan to be integrated.

The school, known then as City & Country School, was the first independent school in Michigan to be integrated.

Annemarie and George always said theirs was a “philosophy of life,” not just of education. They wanted their students to come to understand themselves and to understand the ways in which they are connected to the rest of the world, a model they called Self-Actualization and Interdependence. They assumed their students would go on to college or pursue other passions, but never thought those goals constituted a whole life. They constantly urged their students to consider the effects of their behavior, to be engaged in the larger world, and to value justice over power.

At the same time, they also wanted their students to enjoy life, to appreciate beauty, to laugh. Art, dance, music, and drama were integral parts of school life. Kindergarten children gathered and arranged flowers for receptions, and students danced, sang, and performed at school celebrations. World-renowned musicians from universities in the area performed on special occasions, and impromptu dance, music, drama, and debate broke out regularly in the halls.

For George and Annemarie, life, and therefore education, should include beauty and happiness.

For George and Annemarie, life, and therefore education, should include beauty and happiness.

“If education, at its ideal, is supposed to be a joyous experience, it probably comes as close to that realization at Roeper City and Country as at any school in our experience,” said the team of independent school teachers and administrators in the school’s first accreditation report in 1974. “It is obvious from one’s first entrance to the School, in the good humor, openness, friendliness, the good relations between people and the relaxed atmosphere that Roeper is a community which feels good about and enjoys itself.”

Naturally, in any community built on ideals, reality sometimes falls short. When new ideas are always being explored, the implementation is sometimes less than perfect, or even less than good, on occasion. And any educational system rooted in discovery, in which the point is to try, to reflect, to learn, and to try again, can look rather messy at times along the way.

George and Annemarie sought to create a “world in miniature” at their school: a world that reflected not only the racial and cultural diversity of the larger world, but also the wonder, the failures, the confusion, the richness, the moral conundrums, the flashes of genius, the thrill of solitary discovery and the profound satisfaction of a successful group achievement. They wanted to create a safe place where students could explore all aspects of their lives, with the watchful attention and teaching of sympathetic adults who understand that each child needs the freedom to figure out his or her own particular path through life and how to become a constructive member of a community.

Spontaneous larking can be an excellent use of time.

For the Roepers, spontaneous larking was often seen as an excellent use of time. 

“Our school tries to develop a person who will be able to cope with the modern world, enjoy as many facets of it as possible and contribute to it actively, constructively and creatively. This requires a person who is emotionally secure, aware of his own abilities and his place in a large, complicated and ever-changing world, a person who reacts in a flexible, broadminded, and intelligent manner to the whole complexity of modern life, and who is able to communicate his thoughts and feelings,” they wrote in the early 1960s.

By this means, they hoped to achieve the somber goal that underlay their lives – to transcend the harm done by the Nazis – by educating children to become self-aware, tolerant, and compassionate adults. Although the Roepers’ names and philosophy are closely attached to gifted education (and their approach is particularly suitable for gifted children, with their fierce desire to control their own education), George and Annemarie always considered their philosophy universal, and the ideal education for all children.

Their history and seriousness of purpose gave them a gravitas that garnered respect, but it was by no means their central animating feature, which was a pure love of children. Annemarie and George delighted in watching children, listening to them, enjoying their variety and observing the recurring yet individual pattern of a child coming into his or her own. For them, to educate children was to participate in the eternal rebirth of the world, as each child arrived with his or her own unique potential that gradually unfolded and developed. They were passionate about offering a setting where those children could become the people they were meant to be. As Heads of a school that ran from nursery through high school, they felt deeply fortunate to be able to watch children mature over many years.

George and Annemarie, on opening day for the Domes in September 1969.

George and Annemarie, on opening day for the Domes in September 1969.

George and Annemarie led The Roeper School for almost 40 years. George retired in 1979 and Annemarie in 1980. They took some time to travel and spend more time with family, but they also continued their political activism for issues of justice, particularly nuclear disarmament and human rights, and they continued to contribute to the field of gifted education. George died on August 24, 1992, at the age of 81. Annemarie continued to work for many years, still working with and writing about children, but, given her eternal fascination with human development, also thinking and writing about life “beyond old.” Annemarie passed away on May 11, 2012, at the age of 93.

The Roeper School has continued as well over the years, of course. Not surprisingly, the school had a rocky period after the Roepers left as it adjusted to the loss of charismatic founders at a time when Reagan-era America provided a less-hospitable environment for the humanistic values of the school. Committed teachers, parents, and students kept the school and its philosophy on track.  By 2001, the student population was higher than it had ever been and millions of dollars were being raised to build new buildings, renovate facilities, expand the program, and ensure that the Roepers’ philosophy, forged in the lessons of war, peace, migration, friendship, love, and unexpected opportunities, would continue to thrive and evolve.

As the school celebrates its 75th anniversary during the 2016-17 school year, we celebrate our rich, complex, and aspirational heritage: George and Annemarie’s vision of providing a safe and loving environment for children to explore the world, discover their own strengths and passions, and establish a firm foundation for a lifetime of learning and engagement.