Profile: Detroit Achievement Academy Founder Kyle Smitley on Starting a Charter School, Expansion, and Her “Unhinged” Love for Facilities Projects

Kyle SmitleyMost soon-to-be law school students wouldn’t dream of taking on any large commitments unrelated to school, but Kyle Smitley wasn’t like most law school students. And so, before her 1L year at the University of Toledo, Smitley launched barley & birch, a for-profit, eco-friendly children’s clothing line with a business model to donate half of its profits to global environmental and social causes. The business took off while Smitley was in school, creating extreme time management challenges, but both pursuits flourished.

After graduating from law school, Smitley moved to California and ran barley & birch full time while traveling the country and seeing firsthand the impact of the company’s donations to mission-driven organizations. This led Smitley to begin considering a different future. That grew into a full-fledged plan after selling the company, and she was soon living in Detroit working on starting her own charter school. That school, Detroit Achievement Academy (DAA), was founded in 2013, followed by a second school, Detroit Prep, in 2016.

IFF has supported Smitley since the early days in her journey to create an educational experience for Detroit children that prepares them to become civically engaged citizens ready to change the world, starting with a small loan in 2014 to help DAA establish credit history. Most recently, that support came in the form of a $5 million loan to expand DAA’s facility; a testament to Smitley’s vision and the school’s ability to meaningfully improve the lives of students while strengthening the community.

We sat down with Smitley recently to discuss her motivation for pivoting into education, how DAA and Detroit Prep have grown rapidly in such a short period of time, and the role that quality facilities have played in both schools’ success.

In a Nutshell

What: Q&A with Kyle Smitley, the Founder and Executive Director of Detroit Achievement Academy and Detroit Prep, about her professional journey, equity in education, the role quality facilities have played in her schools’ successes, and more.
Sector:
Schools
Location:
Detroit, MI (Northwest Side)

IFF: Your background is unique for someone who’s leading a charter school network. Can you tell us about the moment you decided that education is what you wanted to focus on professionally?  

Smitley: It was really a compilation of moments. I was working in the private sector and living in San Francisco, and I was frequently donating to and volunteering at a variety of organizations that were making a huge impact in their communities. One of those places was a school in Chicago called the Academy for Global Citizenship (AGC), and my involvement with them made me realize that you don’t need to be a huge school in a large network to be relevant or to make a big impact that has a ripple effect on the community.

I didn’t know that I necessarily wanted to start a school, but I was burned out from the business world and loved the notion of doing something that really inspired me. I was also interested in moving, so I looked and looked and looked in Detroit for a similar small school that was obsessed with the neighborhood and the kids where I could get involved. But I couldn’t find that school.

The founder of AGC is a young woman, and she made it look deceptively easy to start and run the type of school I was interested in being involved with. And so, when I couldn’t find the type of school in Detroit that I wanted to volunteer at, I had this casual thought in the back of my mind that I could just start a school. Had anyone shown me with a crystal ball how truly hard it would be to do, there’s no way I would have gone for it. I’m thankful for my naivete at the time, though, because it’s what led to Detroit Achievement Academy and later Detroit Prep.

IFF: What was your experience like trying to pull together the funding and financing needed to acquire and renovate a building for DAA?

Smitley: Early on, I thought that a school would be an incredibly safe underwriting bet because you have guaranteed funding from the state coming in every single month. I took that confidence with me as I approached traditional lenders at banks, which is where the process started. I talked to them for months, we went through tons of due diligence, and then I started to understand that start-up charter schools are essentially cut off from standard financing until they have a track record to point to, and, even then, it’s very difficult to get a loan from a bank.

That was one of many really defeating moments in my first year doing this, when I had a lot of idealism about how I thought the process should work. There were perpetual learning moments where my vision clashed with what seemed to be possible when I talked to people who I needed to come along with me. We had exhausted our banking relationships by that point, which led to a realization that we’d probably have to go it alone to get things off the ground.

At that point, I started aggressively negotiating a land contract, which had an interest rate of 8 or 9 percent. As far as I knew, that was the only path forward. I started raising as much money as I possibly could because we knew the school would need to put a significant amount of money down. One of our donors, amazingly, was Madonna, who’s incredible. She agreed to help support our cause and, in doing so, helped get attention for the project. She tweeted about it and, when that happened, it was front-page news. That didn’t help convince a bank to give us a conventional loan, but it did prompt Kirby Burkholder at IFF to contact me and offer to help finance the project.

IFF ended up stepping up in a beautiful way by refinancing the original land contract and folding in about $250,000 for renovation costs, which wiped out the initial high-interest deal and gave us the capital we needed to make the facility a reality.

IFF: Obviously you’ve had a lot of success since then, both with Detroit Achievement Academy and later Detroit Prep. What have some of the major milestones been along the way, and what has the “special sauce” been that’s enabled DAA and Detroit Prep to thrive?

Smitley: Looking at the major moments, the most important was just getting open. Having a full staff that returned from year one to year two was also really helpful. That was a rocky time, and it gave us the traction we needed to keep moving forward. Then in year three, we purchased and moved into our forever building, which we’re now expanding. Once we were in the building, we were able to start building a great community of staff, students, and families. We really got lucky a lot in those first few years, including finding a location that we’d later be able to grow into. It was essentially the first building that was for sale that I thought could work, and it just happened to sit on six acres. That’s given us space to take on another construction project now to double our square footage.

Along the way, I’ve found that we have success when I hold the line on the mission and vision, giving the incredible team we’ve built – who are tough, dedicated, committed, and obsessed with the wellbeing of each kid – the cover to do their best work.

There are lots of other little moments since 2013 that I also think of, like when our busing company went out of business and we were able to raise enough money to buy our own buses. Providing transportation to students was really important to us. Most charter schools don’t provide busing, and we had a wait list already, so it wasn’t going to hurt our enrollment if we didn’t provide transportation. That, however, would have been a big deviation from the type of school we wanted. Instead, we did what we knew was best for our students, their families, and the community. I think moments like that are important to me because they show our collective commitment to living our mission and vision. It’s not always easy to do, especially when finances are considered, but I’m proud that we’ve been brave and bold along the way in doubling down on what we think matters.

Along the way, I’ve found that we have success when I hold the line on the mission and vision, giving the incredible team we’ve built – who are tough, dedicated, committed, and obsessed with the wellbeing of each kid – the cover to do their best work.

IFF: How important have your facilities been to realizing your vision for both schools?

Smitley: When it comes to construction, I’m unhinged. I love every single day that I’m on-site at any construction project. I feel lucky, honored, blessed, and excited. So many people think that construction is stressful. It’s not stressful. When construction is taking place, it means we’re fortunate to be able to have the resources we need to create a beautiful space for our kids. I love managing the entire process. Every single day of construction has been the greatest day of my life. There is no such thing as a problem or an issue. If something is delayed, now we have the chance to creatively problem-solve around it. I love creating a space that will be generationally beautiful for our kids in our neighborhood.

Buildings communicate a lot internally to the people who are in them, and they communicate just as much externally to the neighborhood where they’re located. Space communicates value and wealth; it always has.

Buildings communicate a lot internally to the people who are in them, and they communicate just as much externally to the neighborhood where they’re located. Space communicates value and wealth; it always has. And one of the things that I have always gotten hung up on is when you go into schools that don’t make the kids feel like they’re valued. They often look exactly like prisons, and they feel soulless because they’re made for adults and not for kids. Buildings like that tell a story that no one cared enough to create a space for a child or that they couldn’t be bothered to create an environment that communicates joy.

So, that’s what we’ve focused on with our facilities. We’ve taken some financial risks in doing so, but always felt like they were important to our overall vision. An example of that is the exterior lighting of the Detroit Achievement Academy building. It could look like a prison yard, with spotlights shining out into our neighbor’s windows, and that would have been the easiest route for us to take. But, instead, the exterior lighting helps the building look like anything you’d see on the campus of the University of Michigan. Our second school, Detroit Prep, which was an IFF project, was the first public school to be featured in Architectural Digest. That sends a message to the community and to everyone who walks through the doors.

A classroom at Detroit Prep

Going through the process to purchase and renovate two school buildings has also opened my eyes to how inequitable the process can be to provide children in all neighborhoods with quality facilities. Buildings are subject to appraisals, and those appraisals provide the monetary value of the space. They take into consideration so many factors, and with all of those factors comes this incredibly heavy dose of institutional racism. I thought I had a clear understanding of what racism looked like before, but now I see fully how simple tools like appraisals and plenty of other financial tools keep people poor and keep people rich. I’m proud that we’ve been able to use tools like New Markets Tax Credits to provide children in Detroit with facilities that communicate to them how highly valuable they are.

IFF: That’s a great transition to the next question. What are the macro equity issues you see that need to be addressed in education, and how have you approached them at DAA and Detroit Prep?

Smitley: When it comes to equity and education, there’s so much kid-facing work being done. But there are operational components in schools that have major impacts on equitable access to education that don’t get enough attention, and I’m really passionate about that.

It’s not just making sure that kids of color can access the same books, the same materials, and the same high-quality curriculum as their wealthier, whiter peers. That’s just the first step. But true equity requires more. Facilities are obviously one component of this. Should kids be in a building where the roof leaks onto their heads? The answer is pretty evident.

Leadership transitions are another example of how operational decisions impact equity in a very real way. When transitions are mismanaged, it sets the school back dramatically and perpetuates inequity. Kids can go to a really great school, live in a really great community, and love their day-to-day educational experience. But if there are financial problems and the school is transferred over to another group, or a new principal is brought in, that has a significant impact on kids’ experience in that school.

When it comes to operational equity, it often comes down to adults just doing their jobs better. And if you’re not choosing to focus on how operations affect equity, when will you and what will it take to convince you to do so? I think that’s the question that often needs to be answered to create true equity in schools.

IFF: Last question…with the benefit of almost a decade of experience bringing your vision to life, what advice would you give to yourself at the beginning of the journey?

Smitley: Before committing to this idea for education in Detroit, I always thought that if schools just had more private sector leadership, they would be so well-managed, innovative, efficient, and lean. And that is completely and patently false. So, I would start by saying that you actually have far more to learn than you have to teach, and that you should feel free to make whatever mistakes you need to make because everyone learns from them. That actually makes you a better person, too.

2013 Kyle would be like, “thanks, but no, thanks,” which is fine. But that’s what I’d say.

SIDEBAR

Growing Together

In 2014, IFF made its first loan in Detroit, providing the year-old K-8 public charter school Detroit Achievement Academy (DAA) with $17,250 for equipment needed to operate the school. Just as importantly, the loan helped DAA establish credit history that would be critical to its growth in the years ahead. As IFF’s footprint in Detroit has expanded in the years since then, so too has DAA, and we’ve been proud to continue to partner with the school as it works to implement its holistic vision for education as the means to create civically engaged, joyful citizens who are ready to change the world.

Soon after the first loan, IFF followed up with a second loan for $876,000 to refinance existing debt for DAA and provide the capital to renovate an existing school building. When DAA Founder Kyle Smitley decided to open a second school in Detroit – Detroit Prep – IFF provided a $2.75 million loan and allocated approximately $6 million in New Markets Tax Credits (with JPMorgan Chase as equity investor), while Capital Impact Partners provided a $500,000 grant and additional financing for the school, which opened in September 2019 after extensive renovations.

Most recently, in December 2020, DAA closed on financing for a multimillion-dollar project to double the square footage of its original facility, creating ample space to grow enrollment and host community events. IFF provided a $5 million loan for the project, which included bridge funding to increase project flexibility, with additional financing from Capital Impact Partners, Civic Builders, and Chase.

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