After years of fundraising and legal battles, a Detroit charter celebrates its new home

Class is back in session at 8411 Sylvester St.

After sitting vacant for a decade, the century-old school building in Detroit’s Pingree Park neighborhood is now home to Detroit Prep, a 200-student charter school.

When the doors opened this fall, it marked a new beginning for the school, which had been operating out of a church basement since 2016.

It also marked the end of a high-profile political fight over the building that pitted the school against the Detroit Public Schools Community District.

Detroit Prep’s story underscores the difficulty of navigating a real estate market badly damaged by decades of economic and population declines. Finding a workable space is particularly tough for charter schools, which receive no public funding for school buildings. (The Detroit district is also prevented from raising public money for buildings, albeit for different reasons.)

“This project was really hard to do,” said Kyle Smitley, the school’s co-founder and executive director, at a ribbon cutting on Friday. “We fought to clear up a few small issues with the title. We fought to firm up financing for about a year. And we worked like crazy for a year to clear up 10 years of neglect.”

Those “small” issues were a year-long battle that played out in the courts, the legislature, and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.

In short, the Detroit district tried to prevent Detroit Prep from buying the former Joyce Elementary School. With enrollment declining citywide, schools are competing to attract  students and the state dollars they bring in. Detroit Prep hopes to eventually enroll 500 students in grades K-8. District leaders argued that they shouldn’t have to make things easy for their competitors. The nearest district school is a half-mile away.

With encouragement from the statewide charter school lobby, the Republican-controlled legislature passed a law preventing the district from blocking the sale.

Charter schools don’t receive public funds for facilities, so Smitley sought private funding to pay for the $6.9 million renovation. She got support from Madonna, nonprofit lenders including IFF and Capital Impact Partners, and JP Morgan Chase & Co. And she convinced companies to donate furnishings and supplies, from picture frames to the paint on the walls.

Kyle Smitley, back left, stands with members of Capital Impact Partners, a nonprofit fund that supported the renovation of Detroit Prep. (Koby Levin)

The result is a school whose hardwood floors and Art Deco light fixtures wouldn’t look out of place in an architecture magazine, and yet is still recognizable to people in the neighborhood who attended Joyce Elementary decades ago.

Debra Lawrence, 66, attended Joyce from second through fifth grade and returned to watch her son, Rep. Joe Tate, speak at the ribbon cutting. 

Tate wasn’t around for the legislative battle that paved the way for Detroit Prep to move into the building. He says he supports greater oversight of the ways schools open and close in Detroit, and that he generally backs policies that help both traditional and public schools.

He spoke glowingly about Detroit Prep.

“When the building shut down, it left a hole in the community,” said Tate, a Democrat whose district includes the school. “Having Detroit Prep, having that quality education, is going to be so critical moving forward.”

Tate spoke from a podium in an open area just off the main hallway, and as she watched him, Lawrence thought back to a time more than 50 years ago when that part of the room was a stage and she was a second grader nervously preparing for her part in the school play.

“I was terrified,” she recalled. “I remember the teacher saying, ‘All right, Debra, say your lines!’”

A lot has changed since then. The space looks smaller to her now, and students don’t walk home for lunch, the way she and her friends did. But she said the building still feels familiar.

“I’m so glad it’s back,” she said.

A photo on display at Detroit Prep showed the condition of the school auditorium and stage before the renovation. (Koby Levin)