How Detroit Achievement Academy Became a Yass Prize Winner

Student joy and belonging catapulted Detroit Achievement Academy and sister school Detroit Prep to national recognition. Your child could experience this award-winning education.

When the Yass Foundation for Education first came across her radar, Kyle Smitley was struck by how familiar this organization’s core principles were. As Founder & Executive Director of both Detroit Achievement Academy (DAA) and Detroit Prep (DP), she saw alignment between the Yass Prize principles and what her students and teachers achieve every day in the two small Detroit K-8 charter public schools she founded in 2013 and 2016, respectively.

Today, Smitley and her educational community at DAA and DP know a lot more about the Yass Foundation because the schools were named one of 10 finalists — among 3,000 entrants — for the 2023 Yass Prize. As a recipient of the national STOP Award for Sustainable, Transformational, Outstanding and Permissionless Education, Detroit Achievement Academy received $500,000 — and national recognition for educational excellence.

“I heard more about what the Yass Prize values and said ‘Wow, we have been working for the last 10 years, really taking the hard path to be exactly that. This award was made for us,’” Smitley says, adding that she and her colleagues were “freaking out” during the live telecast announcing the top 64 entrants. 

The journey to Yass Prize achievement

Over the next few months, Smitley gathered with the most innovative schools and influential educators in the nation as the competition narrowed down to 32 schools. 

Smitley says the experience was rewarding because she was finally with like-minded educators from other schools working hard to do their best for students. 

“I felt validated. It’s a really lonely path being this type of wild school, independent single-site nonprofit charters. It feels like schools like ours don’t exist. So it was cool to feel like I was in a community,” she says. 

During the final round, Smitley gave a final pitch in Miami and then flew to New York City where DAA achieved top 10 status and the overall winner was announced. 

Why DAA and Detroit Prep are now award-winning schools

Watch the videos on the DAA and Detroit Prep websites of students talking about why they like their school, and you’ll hear words that echo Smitley’s message of belonging and acceptance, of being in the “right place” and feeling good about it. This makes sense because for DAA, belonging is a key measure of success. 

“At all grades, at all ages, we measure students’ sense of belonging. We measure our staff’s sense of belonging. Joy and purpose are major parts of what we look for day to day,” Smitley explains. “That’s how it is here because that’s how we got started. It is very intentional.”

From the beginning, DAA started very small, initially with just 40 total students in kindergarten and first grade. 

“We knew the biggest indicator for long-term student and school success is not budget or facility or leadership or authorizer or city. It’s straight-up school culture,” she says. “Data shows the best way of creating that school culture is to start with a small number of kids, specifically younger kids.” 

Building a joyful, happy school culture is a matter of verbalizing joy and happiness all day, every day, and really living that purpose with the students, according to Smitley.

Detroit Prep is DAA’s sister school on Detroit’s east side and was founded on the same principles in 2016. Together, the schools educate about 800 joyful K-8 students. Both schools are “obsessed with the well-being of students, not with the organizational needs first,” Smitley says. 

At DAA, ‘achievement’ is in the name

Students know that their needs and their education are prioritized, and that translates into high achievement.

“We measure a sense of belonging. We measure craftsmanship and quality work and how kids show up with character. We’ve always said that social-emotional development is as important as academics. And yet on academics, we outperform our peer schools by double digits. We outperform the county averages by double digits. These are all searchable facts,” Smitley says, crediting, perhaps, the basic hierarchy of needs.

“You can’t learn until you are cared for as a whole person. You can’t learn — truly learn — until you feel safe, until you know you matter a lot to your community, until you’ve had breakfast, been greeted and so on,” she says.

The reasons Detroit Achievement Academy reached finalist status

Smitley says that what propelled DAA to finalist status for the Yass Prize in 2023 is a “hard-to-debate track record” of demonstrating the Yass Foundation for Education’s STOP values. Specifically, DAA was recognized for being:

  • Sustainable, based on 12 years of perfect audits.
  • Transformational because DAA made history for being the first school to receive binding college acceptance from Grand Valley State University for its eighth grade class. 
  • Outstanding, in that “our data speaks for itself,” she says.
  • Permissionless as a single-site charter school, doing what’s right for students, rather than putting the needs of a district first. Also, Detroit Prep was the “first public school ever featured by Architectural Digest,” says Smitley about the former abandoned Anna Joyce Elementary that, through its renovation, reflects the joyful school culture she mentioned. 

“The kind of disruption that the awardees are causing in American education is remarkable,” according to Jeanne Allen of the Center for Education Reform, which manages the Yass Prize effort. “Detroit Achievement Academy is among the very best of the American endeavors in education,” she shares in a news release, adding, “We are proud to welcome Detroit Achievement Academy into the Yass Prize network, which provides growth, coaching, mentorship and training opportunities to support our members’ continued growth.”

Yass Prize recognition continues to motivate and inspire, and students will benefit

What started as a vision for a new and better way to engage K-8 students in Detroit for successful outcomes has grown into so much more than she dreamed — and further innovation could very well come from spending time with leaders from across the country, thanks to the Yass Prize. 

what-is-the-yass-prize-graphic-image

Smitley says visiting Montgomery, Alabama, to meet with leaders at Valiant Cross Academy, the overall winner and recipient of the $1 million Yass Prize, was “transformational.” She also had the opportunity to talk about equity and school choice with Joshua Robertson, founder of Black Pastors United for Education and Keith Brooks, founder of the National Fellowship for Black and Latino Male Educators — both fellow Yass Prize finalists.

“If someone were to ask how this has changed my life, I could list a lot of reasons. But I was also sitting in Martin Luther King Jr.’s church. Never have I done that before,” Smitley says. She wants schools to know that the 2024 Yass Prize application is now open. 

“So if anyone who is reading this feels like they’re a major potential disruptor in education, they should apply,” she says. “I would reiterate that no model is superior. I think that our tiny little elementary schools in Detroit are radical and wild, but when I got into the room with the top 32 (Yass Prize hopefuls), we looked straight-up boring. There’s no model, organizational structure or perspective that is too out of the box to be considered.”

Detroit Achievement Academy and Detroit Prep are K-8 charter public schools authorized by Grand Valley State University Charter Schools Office. Learn more about these award-winning schools by visiting gvsu.edu/cso.

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