Detroit Prep revives century-old school building to serve up to 500 students in Pingree Park March 2, 2020

Joyful. Curious. Cooperative. That’s how Kyle Smitley, founder of Detroit Achievement Academy (DAA), describes the children who spend their days learning at Detroit Prep, DAA’s recently expanded sister school serving Detroit’s Pingree Park neighborhood. It’s also how she describes the feeling inside Detroit Prep’s newly renovated home, a century-old school building that sat vacant on the city’s east side for more than a decade.

Opened in 2016, Detroit Prep is a diverse-by-design charter school whose expeditionary learning model encourages students to learn by doing, while also focusing on students’ social-emotional development and the role of school culture in the learning process. The school initially operated out of a local church basement — a time that Smitley says allowed the fledgling Detroit Prep to find its feet and affirm its mission for the future. But the school would soon outgrow those small classrooms, and Smitley and her team quickly started planning to take the vision of Detroit Prep to a different level and place.

The right location was critical to maintaining the mission and culture Smitley’s team spent years cultivating, first with Detroit Achievement Academy and then with Detroit Prep, and remaining geographically accessible to their diverse community of students was a top priority. When Smitley and her Detroit Prep co-founder, Jen McMillan, came across the former Joyce Elementary School building while out for a walk in the neighborhood, they knew it was the perfect place for the school’s forever home.

“It was an empty school building — and the closest empty building to our existing space — that also happened to have the exact number of classrooms we needed for a full model,” explains Smitley. “It was also strikingly beautiful, with abnormally huge windows, tall ceilings, and wide hallways. There was a lot about it that, when you walked through, you could see it was a showstopper.”

Today, the once-blighted school boasts pops of color, plenty of sunlight, and natural finishes meant to inspire wonder and curiosity for the 230 students who spend their days working and learning together. And while Smitley immediately recognized the strong bones and great potential of the space, the building she first saw in 2016 had been in disrepair for more than 10 years, and the path to restoring it as the future home of Detroit Prep was anything but smooth. Still, Smitley knew from experience that she could count on IFF to step up for the school, the students, and the community.

“Being a Detroiter and seeing a building — especially a school building — sitting empty in the middle of a neighborhood really got me,” says Alexis Dishman, IFF’s Managing Director of Lending in Michigan and point person on the project. “This was an opportunity to give kids in Detroit a better education model and school environment, and to reactivate this beautiful space for the community.”

Growing in the face of challenge

IFF’s relationship with Smitley’s team dates back to 2014, when we provided $18,000 in critical financing for equipment at the new Detroit Achievement Academy, followed closely by a second loan for $876,000 to refinance and renovate its building. That first small loan in 2014 was an important step in establishing DAA’s credit history and positioning the school for future growth and expansion. So when Smitley turned to us again for help securing the future of Detroit Prep, the groundwork already had been laid.

“Investing in the expansion of Detroit Prep would have been a lot harder without the very first small loan back in 2014 that allowed the school to establish its programmatic and financial reputation,” explains Dishman. “Too often nonprofits are denied access to the capital they need to create beautiful, mission-centered spaces. Spaces where students learn, where families live, and where people find connection and community. IFF’s mission is to change that through investments like these.”

In addition to providing $2.75 million in loans, IFF allocated $6 million in New Markets Tax Credits (NMTCs)—with JPMorgan Chase as the equity investor—to help make the project possible. A $500,000 grant and additional financing from Capital Impact Partners, a close CDFI partner, gave the school the capital it needed to complete the project. Detroit Prep finalized the building purchase in 2018 — more than two years after Smitley first walked past the empty school building — and moved into their new home in September 2019 after more than a year of extensive renovations.

I think doing community development work can get really messy, and you have to know the details and understand the projects. Our team at IFF totally understood what it’s like to do this work, and it speaks to IFF’s mission and growth mindset around what it means to live that mission.

“Were it not for IFF being such a lead on the project and Alexis just refusing to give up on us, we wouldn’t have been able to finance the building, and I’m not sure we’d be open as a school,” says Smitley, while explaining the years-long struggle to clear up title issues and confirm financing just to purchase the building. “I think doing community development work can get really messy, and you have to know the details and understand the projects. Our team at IFF totally understood what it’s like to do this work, and it speaks to IFF’s mission and growth mindset around what it means to live that mission.”

Included in those issues was a restrictive covenant that had been placed on the building by its original owners. For more than a year, Smitley fought to have the restriction removed, taking her from school boards to state legislatures and eventually spearheading a change in state law to finally allow Detroit Prep to purchase the building in 2018. But any challenges or roadblocks on Detroit Prep’s path to ownership paled in comparison to the students’ smiling faces when the ribbon was cut on the steps of their newly renovated home last November.

Building something special

A surprising side effect of Detroit Prep’s move was the overwhelming response Smitley received from community members. Tears of joy weren’t unusual when neighbors stopped by to see the progress— something that happened often considering the school is in the heart of the neighborhood.

“When I’d be out front meeting with someone, or walking in and walking out, I’d be stopped by somebody who went to the school or who retired after teaching there for 30 years. Every single person who heard it was being restored would freak out because they were so happy,” explains Smitley, who added that many of them started crying after hearing the news. “That definitely gave me a ton of motivation on the hardest days of managing the renovation.”

Smitley’s team worked tirelessly to not just restore their new home to its original condition, but to create a space that reflected the school’s collaborative culture. That meant building glass walls to let in as much sunlight as possible, refinishing original hardwood floors to incorporate more natural materials, and securing donations of paint, tile, artwork, and other fixtures to enhance the beauty of the building.

“When I first walked through the building it was hard to envision children learning there. It was dark and dingy, paint was falling off, and you could see the disinvestment,” remembers Dishman. “Now it feels like you still have the history of the building there, but the new features add a beauty and warmness to it. I think she not only reactivated this abandoned building that people were literally just staring at when they walked out of there house, but she created an environment inside that feels good and will further the school’s education program.”

Detroit Prep’s journey into its new home began years ago with a small infusion of capital from IFF. Now they are the most racially and socio-economically diverse school in Detroit with one of the highest proficiency rates of any elementary school in the city. With a student body of 230 kids and the capacity for 500, the once-abandoned school building in Pingree Park is filled with a renewed sense of joy and curiosity unique to childhood. And after four years of hard work, Smitley believes they’ve built a school almost as special the kids who fill it up.

“Our kids are really special, lovely, kind people,” says Smitley. “It’s always fun to be at the building because the kids are just so great. They love the school. It’s safe, and they can be themselves. It’s a really special, fun place.”

See Detroit Prep’s Transformation:

[Photos Courtesy of Detroit Prep.]