School’s back in session, with a whole new look. Our friends at Detroit Achievement Academy recently completed a new expansion, and with donations from our Fireclay Gives initiative designed truly breathtaking tile moments to inspire young minds as they receive a world-class education.
We caught up with founder Kyle Smitley, who also founded DAA’s sister school Detroit Prep, to hear about the expansion, the inspiration behind all the amazing tile designs, and how she plans to get her hands dirty for the exciting next phase of the school. Keep reading for the full interview!
What's new with Detroit Prep and Detroit Achievement Academy? Any highlights from 2023 to share?
Over at Detroit Achievement Academy, after three years and many phases of our expansion project, we had the best school year finally being all back together in one space again. We got to host a few different all-school community gatherings, like our Night of the Arts event, our official ribbon-cutting ceremony, and our third-ever 8th-grade graduation. It was so special seeing our school home filled with hundreds of family members, students, teammates, and neighbors celebrating our crew in such fun ways!
Both of our schools (Detroit Achievement Academy and Detroit Prep) continue to grow (we'll have nearly 900 students and 85 educators in our district this year!), and it's been really special seeing all the ways that every teammate is working towards achieving our 5-year plan goals in fun and innovative ways.
Let's talk about DAA, why were you expanding the school? What areas were you adding for the new build?
We opened our doors in 2013 in the wing of a church with 40 kindergarteners and first graders. Since then, we've grown every year (as our students get older), so we've always known that our school buildings would have to expand accordingly. We moved out of the church in 2015 into a building of our own, but by 2019, we were nearly out of room again! We looked into moving again (as well as some other more creative options), but we love our little corner in northwest Detroit, and had the land to build. We launched our capital campaign in 2020 to add 30,000 sf to our existing space, and haven't looked back. Our space is now perfect and we can't imagine it any other way.
Our expansion not only added more much-needed classrooms to accommodate our growing school community, but we were also able to add on a state-of-the-art gymnasium (with a full-size basketball court that our crew and other community members are able to enjoy), a stage and performance space, a science and math lab, a maker space, and more, all situated around a beautiful enclosed courtyard. We are so grateful to learn and grow in this space!
Was your approach to design different for the new-build portion of the school? If so, how?
Our Phase 1 of the expansion project happened over the summer of 2021, which was giving some much-needed updates to our existing space - brightening up paint colors, renovating bathrooms (adorned with Fireclay Tile!), adding more windows to increase natural light, and adding custom millwork into classrooms for more storage space for students and teachers.
Then, in Phase 2, the design of the new-build portion of the school was relatively straightforward; add more space that felt cohesive with the existing school, while still bringing new and modern updates throughout to best serve our school community both now and in the future. We continued the rainbow (from the lavenders and blues in the existing building through to the greens, yellows, oranges, and pinks in the new-build portion. (This also helped us use 100% of the overage tile from Detroit Prep's project - there was a perfect space for every bit of it!)
Now we get to work to make the space cozier and more our own -- we are installing art and more millwork and books and making memories here -- that's the good stuff, you know?
What were your points of inspiration for these spaces?
In 2013, we brought joy and light into our rented space by painting the staircase, step-by-step, 19 shades of a rainbow. When we moved into a building of our own in 2015, we pulled some of those colors and created our own sort of rainbow down the hallway. We *all* loved that touchpoint from our founding, and wanted to elevate and soften it a bit, and we kept coming back to a photo of a Lake Michigan sunset (which actually now hangs in our biggest bathrooms). The muted hues from the sky to the lake to the grasses set our color palette, and allowed us to easily integrate other natural elements, which coincides well with our students' learning expeditions that are grounded in the natural world. We aimed to create as much natural light as possible, and lots of airy multi-use spaces for our kindergarten through eighth grade students.
Additionally, as with our Detroit Prep renovation project, we wanted our space to feel welcoming and home-y for every person who walks through the doors. A student's sense of belonging in their community is the number one indicator of their success, and we believe that starts with the way that their school space makes them feel.
How did you come up with the tile patterns and color combos?
The muted tones of a Lake Michigan sunset set our school building's color story (which is set up in a gradient around the perimeter of our space and used as wayfinders), so finding tile colors that matched those was our main goal. From there, we chose primarily more simple patterns to really let the organic beauty of the tiles (more natural materials!) shine through.
To reduce waste, we were also able to incorporate leftover tile from our Detroit Prep project into a few key spaces, like in our staff workrooms and kindergarten bathrooms! It was a fun challenge with Cali (from A Green Haus Design) to place these tiles throughout our building, while still keeping in line with our color story.
What is your favorite tile moment in DAA?
How could I ever choose? That's like choosing a favorite child. But we do all love the colorful water fountain moment in our event entrance space. Being able to see all of the different colors in our color story on one tile wall is just so much fun! When combined with the seemingly permanent laughter and gathering in the gym area, it's just hard to beat. I take the most selfies in the San Gabriel brick bathroom though, which has to count for something, right?
Do the students have a favorite part of the school?
I think I've heard nearly every space be named as someone's favorite part of the new school, actually. I think our new gym, though, takes the cake. Every Monday and Friday we are able to gather there as a whole school for Community Crew, and these bookends to our week are so special to us. Plus, the amount of natural light in there is hard to beat!
How do you see the effect of this beautiful space reflected in the students and their experience at school?
Since our founding, we've named the importance of Beautiful Spaces and their enormous impact on student learning. As we've shared before, we believe that the physical space of the school reflects and supports the learning environment, and that when people enter DAA, we want them to be immediately aware that they are in a place that celebrates learning. By creating a beautifully designed space, you are inherently saying something about the worth of those who inhabit it. We believe all students are worthy of beautiful spaces and want them to know that they deserve to be spaces filled with thoughtful design and lovely materials!
When students feel welcomed, worthy, and like they belong, they are more likely to succeed in all areas of their life, which is our ultimate goal as their school family. And, I will say, this building has had a pretty shocking effect on lots of folks. People get emotional in the space for so many reasons -- that it feels so welcoming, that it feels safe, that they went here as children and they can see the care we took to restore it for generations to come. Our new space has definitely changed something about our culture, for the better, and it's been pretty magical to see it unfold in ways I could never have anticipated. From lockins to graduation ceremonies to incredibly touching dance performances, something magical has been unlocked for us all.
The artwork you select for these spaces is always so empowering. Can you talk about how you go about selecting artwork?
Cali from A Green Haus did such an amazing job selecting art, didn't she? The art in the hallways all line up with the color area in which they hang (so there is lots of pink in the artwork hanging in the pink section, and lots of yellow in the yellow section, for example). My only ask of Cali was to make me/us laugh and to make sure the art or artists looked like or spoke to our kids. Never could I have imagined the magic she was able to put together. I wept looking through each mood board and changed nothing.
We all love this extension of our color story! The mix of classic pieces with more fun text-heavy art was an intentional way of reminding everyone in our building who the space is ultimately for: our students. We also love the use of the giant black-and-white portraits of famous Black world-changers to indicate the sex of the bathrooms - it's fun hearing our student's conversations that are spurred on because of seeing these activists in our space every day.
Last question: what's next?! Is the school complete? What other goals do you have for the schools?
The school is pretty much complete! We'll continue to activate empty classrooms as our school grows, and add more tools and materials to our science lab, math lab, and maker space. We also feel really excited to build out our courtyard even further, which will allow our crew to have an accessible outdoor classroom, perfect for studying pollinators, birds, and more.
The next big thing on the horizon is our DAA Farm & Garden! We've been slowly purchasing some side lots (almost 1 acre of unused green space adjacent to our space!), which we are working to activate. The farm would serve as a source of learning for our students, as well as provide fresh produce for our school meals (a longtime dream of ours since our founding!).
This farm will be phase one of a larger long-term vision: an Outdoor Learning and Exploration Park (designed alongside our students and neighbors), including things like a pollinator garden, outdoor classroom, multi-sport recreation field, and a nature discovery trail. We believe that our Outdoor Learning and Exploration Park is the next step towards achieving our mission of developing curious, engaged learners who are civically engaged, joyful citizens, who are ready to change the world. We feel so excited to dig in.
We hope you’re as inspired by Detroit Achievement Academy’s vision as we are! And if you have your own mission for good, we’d love to hear from you. Request a tile donation here, or if you’re working on a commercial project get in touch with our experienced Commercial Team to learn about our volume and project pricing, custom capabilities, and more.