Executive Director, Detroit Achievement Academy
Interviewed by Matthew Totsky | Photography by Scott Stewart
Meet Detroit resident Kyle Smitley, executive director at the Detroit Achievement Academy (DAA), a free public charter school she founded in 2013. DAA has 120 students in grades K-3 and will continue to add one grade level each year.
“My vision for DAA was and continues to be to give our students a world-class education,” she says. “I am so proud that we’ve delivered on that promise every single day that we’ve been open. Our schoolwide growth last year was in the 99th percentile nationally, and we want people to raise their expectations for what all schools in Detroit can do.”
Originally from Defiance, Ohio, Smitley previously ran her own organic clothing company in San Francisco called barley & birch, which donated half of its profits to charities and different organizations that helped children.
“That experience gave me incredible opportunities to meet with the country’s most promising entrepreneurs, President Obama and so many more incredible people,” she says. “And while I was definitely enjoying that life, I felt so empty. I knew I wanted to work hard, but at the same time I wanted to see a really clear impact beyond just profit. Money just for money’s sake never motivated me.”
That motivation turned out to be the Detroit Achievement Academy. “I wanted to get involved in a nonprofit charter school in Detroit, like ones I’d seen in cities like Oakland, Chicago and Washington, D.C.,” she says. “After learning more about the educational options for kids in Detroit and getting disheartened and sad about what I found, I knew I had to start my own school. It is important to me to create a proof point for all kids in Detroit, to show everyone what schools should be delivering.”
Industry changes: Charter schools are free public schools that can be run independently, according to the needs of that school’s students and staff. We receive some state funding as a public school, but more than half of our operating budget relies on private donations. In Michigan, it is hard to distinguish results from charters and traditional schools. I tend to just focus on good schools and failing schools and try to be outspoken about how all schools need to focus on outcomes for kids.
Professionally speaking: DAA’s students, staff and families are the best. I feel lucky to work with all of them. When I hear our kids talking about their learning or how they’re working on their characters, it gives me inspiration and energy to work even harder.
Proudest career accomplishment: When we opened DAA, people literally laughed us out of rooms and talked behind our backs about how our school model would never survive because we were new to education, were focused on being a small school and had no intent to make a profit. My proudest moment was at the end of last year, still being open and having happy students and parents and staff, and being in the top 1 percent nationally.
Career thoughts: It’s only going to get better because we’re opening a second school — ideally in Corktown — in fall 2016.
Passion for: Outside of DAA, my two biggest hobbies are surfing and pit bulls. I’m happiest out in the water and could spend the entire day catching waves and paddling around. My best friend is my 6-year-old rescue pit bull, Oreo. I do whatever I can to support the best pit bull and dog rescues in Detroit.
Life in Detroit: Detroit to me is pure magic. I’ve never been happier living anywhere else. The mixture of people here is so incredible and inspiring. I get to meet brilliant, odd, inspiring, intimidating and hilarious people in a range of places as we navigate real estate and community partnerships and other moving parts that go along with managing a school. The architecture, the food, the art and the small business culture are serious icing on the cake.
Favorite place to hang out: In Detroit, I spend a lot of time at Sister Pie and Parker Street Market. Their food is unbeatable. I also find myself begging people to meet at Imperial in Ferndale for tacos and beer.
My perfect day: My perfect day is at the DAA with our amazing staff and students. There’s always a lot of work to do, and sometimes I might give a tour or two. Receiving a large donation would also certainly make it the perfect day. After work, I’d do some yoga at Detroit Yoga Lab, and then make it home for dinner with my husband and a stroll with him and our dog.
What most people don’t know about me: Most people don’t know that I am a marathon runner and ran in the 2013 Boston Marathon. NS
For more information, visit detroitachievement.org.