It’s no surprise to those who know him that Kevin Smith was recently named chief of staff to Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager Roy Roberts. His quiet but effective mannerisms have earned him a reputation for being a person who gets things done. But what many don’t know is that it seems he was being prepped for this position of challenge and change for years.
At 40, Smith is youthful but with a degree of poise usually reserved for those much older. A native Detroiter, Smith is the son of the late Dr. Gerald K. Smith, founder of Youthville Detroit, and Dr. Ann C. Smith, an accomplished educator. He grew up on Detroit’s west side, two blocks from Mumford High School, one of 15 current DPS schools slated to be taken over by the state-created Education Achievement Authority in the fall of 2012. A product of DPS schools, including Renaissance High School, Smith enjoyed a childhood that gave him balance and a sense of being.
“My father was no nonsense, with me and everyone else.,” he said. “But he had a beautiful spirit and cared about everybody. He also never gave or called in favors for me or tried to persuade me to follow in his shadow, but instead, gave me the support and confidence to find my own way.”
He didn’t realize it then, but Smith was being strengthened in a way he didn’t recognize or appreciate at the time. His parents were loving but firm and provided a sense of community for Kevin, his friends and the neighborhood.
“My parents knew the value of a strong support system for kids, All of them. And they generously provided one,” he said.
His father lived and believed that “when kids are provided opportunities to be constructively involved and have caring adults in their lives, they make better choices, which help them become better adults.”
This belief was the basis of Youthville, which he founded in 1999.
After graduating from high school, Smith continued his education at Michigan State University and Wayne State University Law School, where he served as an associate editor and survey editor of the Wayne Law Review.
Immediately after law school, Smith served as judicial law clerk to the Honorable Damon J. Keith, United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, before continuing his legal career as a bond attorney and eventually partner at the blue chip law firm of Miller Canfield Paddock and Stone, P.L.L.C.
But after his father passed in 2008, Smith grew hungry for new opportunities to make a difference. In September 2011 he left Miller Canfield to become managing partner of his own municipal law and public policy firm, Public Solutions Group, LLC.
That same year he served as policy advisor to United States Congressman Gary C. Peters, for the 9th District of Michigan, and as a member of the financial advisory team to Mayor DeAndre Windom of the City of Highland Park, where he helped the city develop its own deficit elimination plan and stave off the appointment of an emergency manager by the state.
“I’ve been blessed to work with some pretty amazing people.” Smith said. “From Judge Keith to Gary Peters to many extremely smart lawyers at Miller Canfield, I learned most of what I know from people who were accustomed to being on the front line of challenges.”
Smith also had a street-level view of the challenges within the DPS system He and wife Reva and their two children, Sydney (8) and Gerald (7), reside in Detroit: “My children attend DPS schools. I see and live the realities of a challenged urban school system every day.”
But, unlike many others, Smith realizes that making a difference for all children means staying and working to make a change. So, when the call came for him to join the staff of Roy Roberts, he didn’t think twice.
“Mr. Roberts is no-nonsense, like my father was. And he too, is a champion of education and opportunity for all children. I realize you can’t make a difference from the sidelines.
My father was a major influence on me. He not only cared, but showed me how to do the same.”
While Smith believes that caring is a major first step, he also realizes a combination of grassroots awareness and business acumen are key to returning DPS to the level of excellence of its past: “We need leadership at every level — students, parents, teachers and administrators.”
Smith believes there is no shortage of ideas, but rather an absence of an action plan, which Roberts has formulated and begun executing.
“Mr. Roberts was a key factor in my accepting this opportunity. He is exactly what DPS needs right now.”
Those who have worked with Smith in the past also have high opinions of him.
“I think most highly of Kevin and the work he did for us while he was at Miller Canfield,” said Joyce Parker, emergency financial manager for Highland Park Schools and former emergency manager for the City of Ecorse. “We (Ecorse) had a very complex bond issue, and Kevin coordinated the entire year-long process and got us to the finish line. He is an excellent young man who is detail oriented. I have the utmost respect for him as a person and professional.”
The Honorable Judge Daman J. Keith also had an influence on Smith, who cited the judicial legend for “challenging me to not just accept what already exists. but to think about what is right, then decide and be committed to doing it.”
More importantly, Smith says he is totally invested in DPS.
“I see the needs and the hits the city and DPS take every day. As a product of DPS, a lifelong Detroiter, a father of DPS students, and now a member of the DPS team, I’m committed at every level to the vision Mr. Roberts has for making this Ddstrict everything it is capable of becoming,” he said.