News Story

Detroit charter network up for $1 million award

Charter schools overcame resistance from Detroit’s school district

A Southeast Michigan charter school organization is in the running for a $1 million prize for educational excellence.

The prize is one of several offered by the Yass Foundation. The foundation emphasizes personalized education that is driven by leaders who “execute on what they know to be right, rather than waiting for a green light from a person or entity that has no personal interest or expertise in what they do.”

The leaders and staff of Detroit Achievement Academy and Detroit Prep, two charter schools with a shared board of directors, are among the semifinalists for the prize. “This visionary network,” the Yass Foundation says on its website, “has boldly redefined the very measures of school and student success across three pivotal dimensions: mastery of knowledge and skills, character development, and high-quality work.”

Detroit Achievement Academy serves K-8 students and was founded by Kyle Smitley, who serves as its executive director. The school opened its doors in 2013. Its sister school, Detroit Prep, which also serves K-8 students, opened in 2016. Together they enroll roughly 800 students.

Smitley is proud that her teachers and staff follow principles that veer from the traditional norms of the public school system. The two schools, she told CapCon, let talented and gifted teachers develop curriculum based on what is best for students, adding that conventional public schools use their talent inefficiently.

The schools expect students to master the covered knowledge and skills, but they also stress character development. They do not put a lot of emphasis on standardized testing scores because they believe the tests do not accurately reflect the academic achievements of their students. Even so, the schools outperformed the Detroit Public Schools Community District for reading and math in English. They also outperformed the statewide average, with 42% proficient or advanced, compared to the state average of 37%.

The schools, whose charter authorizer is Grand Valley State University, have turned down various funding opportunities. They did this, Smitley told CapCon, because they want to be free from the restrictions that would come with the funding.

Smitley and her board have faced challenges from incumbent education providers. The Detroit Achievement Academy outgrew its previous location, and it looked toward a shuttered building owned by Detroit Public Schools as its next location. The academy faced strong resistance from the school district, however, as the Mackinac Center recounted in a story published in 2018. The district wanted to prevent a competing school from using the building, and it placed a deed restriction on the property to make sure. Mackinac Center lawyers and sympathetic legislators intervened, and Smitley and her staff were able to purchase and renovate the building. “Today was our first day in our new building and I basically just cried all day because WE DID IT,” Smitley wrote to the Mackinac Center in 2019.

CapCon asked Smitley what compelled her to create alternative schools. She quoted the Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, who said “the biggest winner of an educational revolution would be society as a whole.”

If the schools win the $1 million prize, they will use the money to support and coach future founders of other schools.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.