In addition to growing into a productive citizen, many parents hope that their child will eventually attend college, earn the degree of their choice and enjoy a fruitful and satisfying career. In many areas of Detroit, however, the barriers to these goals are high, particularly for students who are the first in their family to attend college. Here’s where a charter school has the unique ability to create a pathway directly to college.
At Detroit Achievement Academy, a K-8 public charter school in northwest Detroit, students not only learn through an immersive “expeditionary learning” framework that blends real-world learning with a social-emotional focus on habits of character — but they graduate from middle school knowing that they can attend one of the state’s top universities, if they choose.
Through the Detroit Achievement Academy Pathway to GVSU, all students from the very first graduating class of Detroit Achievement Academy — who became high school freshmen in the fall of 2021 — have already been accepted into Grand Valley State University (GVSU) with full tuition scholarships. As a charter school authorized by GVSU, students at Detroit Achievement Academy benefit from this relationship in the best possible way: by fast-tracking to their eventual place in the GVSU Class of 2029.
This graduation-day announcement may seem like a wonderful gift for students, but the reward was years in the making and achieved through plenty of involvement from students and their families, says Kyle Smitley, Founder and Executive Director of Detroit Achievement Academy.
“I remember sitting with our students and their families when they were in fourth grade. I said we are at half time now, so what do you want the last half of your experience here to look like? What sort of information do you want to leave elementary school with?” Smitley recalls. From families, she learned what was of value for them: self-responsibility, time management and using resources appropriately.
By asking what parents wanted — and being responsive to their needs — a charter school like Detroit Achievement Academy can build strong relationships to help students achieve college, even when that first day on campus is years in the future, Smitley says.
“It all starts from being a small, independent community that starts thinking about college and the future many years prior,” she explains. “It’s all about those relationships and being able to have authentic feedback and aligning our resources accordingly. All of the rest that comes after is a symptom of that work.”
With college in mind
As students at Detroit Achievement Academy prepare for high school, they are also preparing for college by learning about the college environment at GVSU, says Kevin O’Brien, math teacher and Detroit Achievement Academy’s High School Transition Coordinator.
“We took our first set of graduates to Grand Rapids to connect with GVSU staff and learn how they should be preparing as high school freshmen for those eventual four years in college,” O’Brien says. “Some of the students got really excited hearing about dorm life and others were happy to learn about the GVSU Detroit Center.”
The act of picturing themselves as eventual college students helps attach additional relevance to the hard work of high school, too.
“We are asking that our graduates come back a couple of times a year and visit and keep in touch regarding their grades and their needs,” O’Brien says. “We provide virtual free tutoring and they have GVSU students to connect with. We are backing our students in every way possible, financially, emotionally and with academic help.”
Students in the first graduating class from Detroit Achievement Academy are now attending schools like Renaissance High School, University of Detroit Jesuit, Jalen Rose Leadership Academy and Detroit School of Arts.
The big picture
Whatever choice a Detroit Achievement Academy student makes, they receive the support of a small community that helped them appreciate education, says Upper School Director Kirstin Stoeckle.
“Even if college isn’t what a student wants, it should be accessible to them. We want to be giving them all the information they need and if they do decide it’s the path for them, across the board and starting in kindergarten, we are showing them that we don’t just value college grads, but all members of the community,” she says. An endowment provides graduating students with $5,000 for post-high school needs, whether that’s books for college or apprenticeship or trade school materials.
As a charter school, Detroit Achievement Academy helps students in ways a traditional public school can’t, by showing them pathways and helping them build a college mindset from a very early age.
“Students get asked a lot in the community about what they want to be, and we focus on the problems they want to solve,” O’Brien says. “When we frame it that way, students know it involves some level of education. When we are asking the question in the right way, we really change the focus and it becomes so much more empowering.”
Sponsored by the GVSU Charter Schools Office. Learn more at gvsu.edu/cso.