Our Mission

Our mission is to create a world-class K-8 school where all children are prepared for college, career, and life.

Catalyst Academy Charter School is a college-preparatory K-8 public charter school in Pittsburgh, focused on serving families in the Hill District, Garfield, East Liberty, Larimer, Lincoln-Lemington, Homewood, and East Hills communities as well as families from across Pittsburgh and neighboring communities that are looking for a great school.

We opened as a K-1 school in the fall of 2020, and will grow a grade each year to eventually serve kindergarten through 8th grade. As a public charter school, Catalyst Academy is a tuition-free, open-enrollment school for any student, including students with special needs and English-language learners.

Catalyst Academy is the first new K-8 charter school in Pittsburgh in 6 years and is located in the Lincoln-Lemington neighborhood, in the former Lemington school building.

Our Approach

Our Team

School Leadership

Brian Smith is the Founder & CEO of Catalyst Academy. Brian started Catalyst Academy based on his deeply-held belief that all children, and especially historically disadvantaged children, should have access to a great education, one that can be a catalyst for changing the lives of their family and community. Brian was formerly the Executive Director of Strategic Priorities at the Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS), where he led the district’s strategic planning process, and the development of K-2 literacy, and STEAM initiatives. Prior to his work at PPS, Brian’s career included a variety of roles in technology, corporate strategy, and online media. A native of Pittsburgh, Brian has a bachelor’s degree from Carnegie Mellon University and a master’s degree from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He also completed a two-year urban education leadership program through The Broad Center. Brian is the proud father of two wonderful children.
Darren Gray is the Founding Principal of Catalyst Academy. Darren is an experienced educator who started his career as a Teach for America Corps member serving at Simmons Junior-Senior High School in the Mississippi Delta. As a corps member Content Leader, Darren led professional development for teachers across the region. Darren later moved to Nashville, TN to serve as an 8th Grade Literacy Teacher at Liberty Collegiate Academy. After working as a teacher, he transitioned to the role of Assistant Principal. In this role, Darren led the coaching and development of teachers across several content areas. His leadership resulted in Liberty Collegiate having the highest increase in student growth across the seven school Republic Charter School network. Liberty Collegiate was also recently recognized as having student growth in the top 5% of schools in Nashville. A native of Alabama, Darren is a graduate of Samford University.
Monica Cooper is the Founding Director of Scholars of Catalyst Academy. Monica began her career as a first grade teacher and later taught Kindergarten. As Monica developed her practice, she became a teacher leader and coached other teachers across first through fifth grades at Village Prep Woodland Hills Campus in Cleveland, Ohio. Monica’s passion for building strong relationships with students to ensure their success, both academically,socially, and emotionally led to her elevation as the Dean of Scholars at E-Prep Middle School, Woodland HIlls Campus. In this position Monica assisted in the redesign of the school discipline system,routines, and procedures. Monica later transitioned here to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and served as the PBIS Coordinator and member of the Student Support Services Team at Urban Academy. In this role, Monica directed the implementation of the first tier of PBIS. This PBIS implementation resulted in a 67% reduction in Level 1 referrals between November and February. Monica was raised in Cleveland, Ohio and graduated from Cleveland State University.

Megan was born and raised in Wisconsin and received her bachelors in Theatre from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She started her career in Pittsburgh as the youth sports director at the Baierl Family YMCA, then received her Masters in teaching from Chatham University and worked as a student teacher for kindergarten at Pittsburgh Public Schools-Fulton. She taught at Propel Pitcairn as an emotional support paraprofessional, 3rd grade Humanities and 5th & 6th grade Science teacher. Megan excels at building strong relationships with students and families and thrives on the energy that a school full of learners provides. She is an enthusiastic wife, mother, and advocate for all children.

Laura Lerand is the Founding Dean of Instruction of Catalyst Academy. She began her work as an educator as a Teach for America Corps member in the Rio Grande Valley. As a corps member, she taught dual language kindergarten at an International Baccalaureate public school in McAllen, Texas, where she developed a passion for teaching young students the fundamentals of literacy. After Teach for America, Laura joined IDEA Public Schools as a founding bilingual kindergarten teacher, grade team leader, and instructional coach at IDEA Bluff Springs Academy in Austin, Texas, where she was recognized as Teacher of the Year. Most recently, Laura served as the Education Director for Reading is FUNdamental Pittsburgh.
She is a graduate of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and was born and raised in Wisconsin.

Helene earned her undergraduate degree from Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington and completed her master’s degree in education at Marion University in Indiana. She began her teaching career as a 4th grade Teaching Fellow with an urban charter school in Indianapolis and later became the instructional coach for all kindergarten through 4th grade classrooms. During this time she was recognized with the Excellence in Teaching Award for dedication to the community and commitment to student achievement. Helene finds deep satisfaction and joy working with teachers to help them excel in their classrooms for the benefit of the students in their care.

Dr. Carrie Potter-Murray is the Founding Director of Inclusive Learning at Catalyst Academy. Over the past decade, Carrie served first as a paraprofessional before moving into instructional roles in Learning Support, Autistic Support, and Emotional Support. Carrie loves “school;” from the excitement of the first day of school to continuing education opportunities, Carrie considers herself a lifelong learner. She has degrees from Point Park University, the University of Pittsburgh, and Slippery Rock University. Carrie defended her doctoral thesis, a study proposing the original contextual feminist leadership theory, in July 2020. With a passion to promote equitable outcomes for all students commensurate with their abilities, Carrie is a fierce advocate for her school community. A Pittsburgh native, Carrie and her husband (who is also an educator) strive to raise their three children to be curious and welcome chances to improve our world for a more inclusive future.
MaLisha Scott is the Founding Front Office Manager for Catalyst Academy Charter School. MaLisha has worked in a variety of administrative roles in Pittsburgh for organizations that include The Bridge of Pittsburgh, which helps bridge the gap between the end of education and adulthood for foster care youth, Pressley Ridge, Propel Charter Schools, and UPMC. Malisha is a Christian, wife, and mother, who is passionate about ensuring all children are seen, heard, supported, and loved.

Scholar Support

Taylor Childers, School Counselor

Manasseh Garner,

School Culture Associate

Amber Grohowski, Growth Interventionist

Janaya Kennedy, School Nurse

Stephan Patterson


Myra Powell has been working in community development for over 35 years. She had never thought of working at a school until she learned about Catalyst Academy Charter School’s focus on building community. Myra believes if we want to have a well-rounded scholar, and a well rounded school, then you have to get the community involved. She enjoys experiencing new things, cooking, and loves having picnics.

Instructional Team

Yaz was born in Mexico and moved to Texas when she was six years old. She attended the KIPP Academy in Houston in middle school. Her teachers helped her gain access to incredible opportunities, including attending a private high school. Afterward, she attended Pitzer College in California and graduated with a Bachelor’s in Psychology in 2007. Next, Yaz joined Teach For America and moved to New York City. There she taught middle school math in the South Bronx for 10 years. In 2017 she and her husband moved to Pittsburgh. As an educator, she seeks growth and opportunities to learn and improve her craft by reading and watching master teachers work.

Falencia Jean-Francois was born in Haiti, grew up in Boston, and has called Pittsburgh home for the last eleven years. She began her career in education as a preschool teacher. After three years, she transitioned to elementary education by way of Duquesne University’s PreK-4 master’s program. She lives in Forest Hills with her wife of eleven years, her dog (Loki), and her cat (Rory). When she isn’t teaching, she enjoys writing curriculum and fiction.

Raquel began her teaching career after graduating from the Pittsburgh Langley Teaching Academy in 2009. She then received a B.S. from Slippery Rock University and moved to Arizona where she worked as a K-12 substitute in a small town on the Colorado River Indian Tribes reservation. Raquel fell in love with the community & students, staying for a almost 7 years. During this time, she had two daughters & earned her Masters in Education from Grand Canyon University. Raquel has recently moved back to her hometown of Pittsburgh. She continues to grow in her passion & knowledge as an educator, year after year, & is excited to begin her newest adventure at Catalyst Academy.

Allison Sillin was born and raised in Dayton, Ohio, and earned her Bachelors Degree in Early Childhood Education from Miami University of Ohio. After graduating, Allison moved to Columbus, Ohio and began her teaching career serving second and third grade students in public charter schools for seven years. She spent six years serving second grade students at United Preparatory Academy and was involved in a variety of leadership positions. She is excited to join the Catalyst team and be a part of a committed and supportive community in a new city. Allison believes all children deserve a high-quality education and should feel supported and successful.

Lauren Singer is the oldest of four kids, grew up in Hollidaysburg, PA, and is a graduate of Chatham University with a Bachelors in Education. Lauren began her career in an early education preschool classroom in Pittsburgh and couldn’t be more excited to continue working with scholars at Catalyst Academy. Lauren is a passionate advocate for equitable education and serves to fulfill students needs academically, socially, developmentally, and emotionally. She published a case study on how schools and teachers can better support students who have experienced trauma through the practice of mindfulness, and her devotion to supporting students who have experienced trauma flourishes in areas beyond the classroom.

Originally hailing from the Greater Pittsburgh area, Jennie attended Geneva College and after graduating moved to Memphis, TN as a Teach for America Corps member. She stayed in Memphis and taught there for five years while also earning her masters degree in education from Christian Brothers University. Jennie has recently begun her second masters degree at Slippery Rock University in K-12 Reading and Literacy. Jennie is an educator because of her brother. She says, “School was always easy for me, but it was hard for him in ways I will never understand. I saw firsthand how some teachers made his life amazing and some teachers made his life hard. I am an educator for all of the kids who, like my brother, just need a chance.”

Kaeli was raised in Erie, PA and graduated from Duquesne University’s School of Education in the Spring of 2019. After graduation, she taught Kindergarten at Washington Montessori Elementary in Greensboro, North Carolina then transitioned the following year into the role of a combined Pre-K and Kindergarten teacher and also led the school’s Social and Emotional Learning Committee. Kaeli grew up with an immense love for sports and dance thanks to her parents and brothers, and while at Duquesne University, she performed and traveled with the multicultural song and dance ensemble known as the Tamburitzans. Having dance and athletics as major parts of her life created the love and joy Kaeli finds in being an educator.

Originally from a small town outside of State College, Olivia moved to Pittsburgh her senior year at Indiana University of Pennsylvania to finish her degree in Early Childhood Education, Special Education, with a focus in Urban Studies. That year she also became certified to teach English as a Foreign Language. Olivia is an experienced teacher who began teaching English as a Second Language at Beechwood Elementary before coming to teach first grade at Catalyst Academy.

Hillary has been teaching for nine years in and around the Pittsburgh area. Her teaching experiences range from being an early childhood PreK classroom teacher to being an education director for Kindergarten through second grade. She is thrilled to be a founding first grade teacher here at Catalyst Academy Charter School. Hillary is an educator because of one very special teacher who showed her that education wasn’t about the grades or the information that was being taught, but the relationships between the students and the teacher.

Dawn Campbell, Building-wide Substitute Teacher

Emily Newman, an artist and teacher, was born in Singapore in 1977, raised in the UK and has lived in Pittsburgh since 2010. She received her MFA from The California Institute of the Arts in 2004, and her MAT from Chatham University in 2020. She received a Fulbright in 2006 and spent three years teaching at The Finnish Academy of Fine Arts and at St Petersburg University (Russia.) Most recently she was an art teacher at Manchester Academic Charter School which is located in the Museum Lab/Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, for three years. She is devoted to the prospect of giving the children at Catalyst a rigorous, experimental and joyful arts education and is so grateful that Catalyst’s commitment to the arts means that our young artists practice EVERY DAY!

Stephanie Tolbert-King, Founding Dance Teacher

Abbey was born and raised in Pittsburgh, grew up in the South Hills, and went to Duquesne University to study Early Childhood Education. After graduating, Abbey moved to Chicago where she taught preschool in Chicago Public schools, working with 4 and 5 year olds. Teaching young students allowed Abbey to focus on the importance of early education for children. She moved back to Pittsburgh in the summer of 2021, got married and adopted a puppy. Abbey is excited to begin this new journey at Catalyst Academy!

Families interested in applying at Catalyst Academy please visit our enroll page.

For general inquiries about Catalyst Academy, please email us at info@catalystacademy.org or call us at 412-684-2400.

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