In 2013, CBS Detroit affiliate reported that 75% of Detroit schools failed to provide adequate education for their students. The organization Excellent Schools Detroit scored 204 schools in which only 51 received a “C+” or higher.
Detroit has been the center of a financial crisis that culminated in December 2013 when the city was deemed eligible to declare Chapter 9 bankruptcy.
With a reported 60% of children under the federal poverty line, Detroit families face a combination of economic and educational setbacks.
On a recent episode of The Ellen DeGeneres Show, the program featured a young woman named Kyle Smitley. Smitley moved from San Francisco to Detroit to start the Detroit Achievement Academy, a free public charter school.
Featured as one of Inc. Magazine’s 30 Under 30 Entrepreneurs, Smitley gained fame as founder of the children’s clothing line Barley & Birch, which is based in San Francisco. She graduated in 2007 with a degree in Environmental Science and began several research projects investigating the legitimacy of organic clothing companies. After discovering that several businesses were not using truly organic, Smitley decided to create her own line “that was accountable to the environment and to its customers.”
In her first interview with Ellen, Smitley recalled her life in San Francisco was content: “I was in the young entrepreneur world, I had everything I needed.”
But in spite of all her success, she still felt something was missing, stating,
“I think what I learned is you can have it all and feel empty if you’re not doing something more meaningful.”
Accompanying Smitley was 22-year-old Danielle Johnson, one of the founding teachers of the school. “I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world,” she said of her time at the Detroit Achievement Academy.
At the time of the interview, the Academy was offering kindergarten and first grade classes with only 40 kids enrolled. Smitley says the institution aims “to add a grade level every year.” The institution utilizes the Expeditionary Learning curriculum, which has been designed in relation to the national Common Core Standards (a schooling initiative that has been implemented by forty-five states).
Besides giving premium education, the Detroit Achievement Academy also cares for its students in other faculties of life. Each day Smitley rides the bus to ensure her students make it to school. She tells MyFox Detroit that Brightmoor, which is one of Detroit’s poorest neighborhoods, is often claimed to be “the most dangerous part of the city.”
The poverty in the area means that many of the children are unable to eat over the weekends. To help their students, the Academy provides three meals a day along with snacks, like Cheerios.
“We’re taking them from their parent all day long, and it’s really hard to feel really good about that when we’re now going to feed them super nasty processed food and then demand so much of their minds,” Smitley told The Huffington Post. With the Northwest Detroit Farmer’s Market in range, the institution also hopes to grow some of its own food and use food as part of the educational experience.
Last Wednesday, the show checked back in with Smitley to see how things were going at the Academy. One of the first things Smitley pointed out was the overwhelming amount of donations the institution had received:
“We literally have enough glue sticks to last us for four years.” Their library, which was christened the Ellen DeGeneres Library, also grew: “When we started the school year, we only had about 50 books total. Now we have over 2,000 books thanks to you and your viewers.”
Smitley shared that the students were doing remarkably well in the program. The school tests its students when they enter, and recently conducted an exam to monitor their progress. “Generally speaking, 4 out of every 100 kids in Detroit are on grade level,” she stated. “Because of this recent assessment we can say that 100 percent of our students are on track to be on grade level.” The school also announced it will have second grade for its students.
Detroit remains a work in progress, as children continue to battle obstacles to receive quality education. Yet the Detroit Achievement Academy remains hopeful, with much of that positivity coming from the students themselves.
“It is not easy to be a kid in Detroit,” Smitley says. “Our students face struggles that many kids will never have to deal with, but they’re resilient, they’re dedicated, they persevere every single day.”
If you want to help Detroit Achievement Academy, visit their website for more information: