This article originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Business Times on March 22, 2021. It was written by Julia Mericle.

Here’s how a charter school in Pittsburgh’s east end opened in the midst of the pandemic

Catalyst Academy

When Brian Smith started the journey to opening Catalyst Academy Charter School four years ago, he did not expect to welcome the school’s first students in the midst of a global pandemic.

Smith, founder and CEO, said he spent several years obtaining the necessary requirements to open a charter school, and he and his team received final approval to open the school in the fall of 2019. By the time he and the founding principal Darren Gray were ready to open the school’s doors in 2020, education looked drastically different.

“Basically, the pandemic made every aspect of opening a new school even more challenging,” Smith said.

Despite those challenges, Catalyst Academy spent most of the 2020-2021 school year offering in-person classes five days a week. The school offered a couple weeks of virtual class right when it opened due to renovations and another couple between the winter holidays.

“From a financial perspective, it took multiple strategies to really pull it off,” Smith said, “As we were gearing up, we were pursuing various avenues of philanthropic support to help with the first-time costs, and that became a lot more challenging as philanthropy shifted toward direct pandemic relief efforts.”

Catalyst Academy trimmed its budget, and Smith said the school worked with organizations to ensure it could more flexibly spend the money it received through grants. The school received grants from the federal U.S. Charter Schools Program and the Grable Foundation.

“We worked with financial partners to help us manage our cash flow,” Smith said. “With any startup organization, of course there are a lot of initial costs before you start realizing revenue.”

Smith said the school is a nonprofit, but he expects it will make up for those initial costs within the first three years.

The challenges did not stop with finances. Starting a school in the midst of a pandemic meant Smith and his team had to expand from two to 22 people without any in-person interviews.

The school, which enrolled about 100 kindergarten and first grade students in its first year, had to rely on digital outreach and marketing. Smith said the school will add second grade in the 2021-2022 school year, and he expects the school to enroll about 170 students.

Catalyst Academy signed its lease on the historic Lemington School Building in the Lincoln-Lemington neighborhood before the pandemic hit. Smith said renovation plans were delayed when the state halted all construction work.

“With each of these hurdles we took an approach to think about our mission,” Smith said. “We were started to serve underserved communities in Pittsburgh who did not have access to high-quality schools. We did not want to exacerbate those inequalities because of the pandemic.”

That’s why Smith choose the Lincoln-Lemington neighborhood. He said this location allows the school to reach students in underserved neighborhoods in the east end of Pittsburgh, stretching across the Hill District, Garfield, East Liberty, Lincoln-Lemington, Homewood and East Hills. Smith said these are traditionally African American communities and zoned for neighborhood schools with large achievement gaps.

“Less than 10% of students in those high schools are going on to college, and we know that is not anywhere near sufficient in today’s economy,” Smith said.

Smith said he always wanted Catalyst Academy to be a “one-to-one” school, where each student receives an iPad. However, that task also became much harder during Covid-19.

“The iPads themselves, as well as the supporting infrastructure, became a challenge that we had to tackle, because every school in America was purchasing these devices,” Smith said.

However, Catalyst Academy was able to secure devices for all of its students in time for the first day of school.

Smith said he is not worried that students will leave the new school once more in-person options begin to open back up. He said surveys of parents of existing students revealed that 95% would recommend the school to others and 100% plan to return next school year.

Those are percentages Smith feels good about given he started this charter school amid some of the toughest challenges to the education system he has seen in his lifetime.