Delaney Green and Jessica Zuk
Jessica Zuk, principal at Penn Hills Charter School of Entrepreneurship, talks with 12-year-old student Delaney Green. Photo by John Beale.

Twelve-year-old Delaney Green is an entrepreneur who’s an expert in picking the healthiest oils to mix into her handmade peach and strawberry lip glosses. 

She raised startup cash from her family to produce and market the line of lip gloss, got some tips during a school field trip to Duquesne University’s Small Business Development Center and created her own business cards with partner Alexis Johnson. 

The girls are both seventh-graders at Penn Hills Charter School of Entrepreneurship, where students launch and operate small businesses as part of the daily curriculum beginning in kindergarten. 

Delaney and Alexis hatched the idea for their D and A’s Style Bowtique during the Covid pandemic lockdown when it was challenging to shop because of store closures and supply chain delays. 

Along with lip gloss priced at $7, the pair create glass bead bracelets for $8 each and colorful fashion hair bows that sell for $5 to $8.

Principal Jessica Zuk talks with students Cassidy Johnson, 10, center, and Alaya Franklin, 11, in an art room at the school. Photo by John Beale.

“We deliver at school and to homes for family members,” says Delaney, as she assembles bracelets in the school’s tech lab where students have access to 3D printing, laser engraving and vinyl printing equipment. 

On a recent Monday morning, her classmates were brainstorming about ideas or working on ventures already in progress, including a heated and weighted backpack that aims to reduce back pain for wearers.

Besides creating businesses, students are responsible for hiring employees, selling products and handling returns. 

Eighth-grader Destiny Folks, 14, aspires to be a lawyer and manages a company that offers painting lessons to young children starting at $15 per hour. 

Destiny Folks, 14, started a business that teaches children to paint, then helps the children market their paintings. Photo by John Beale.

“I learned every part of my business here,” says Destiny, who has exhibited her own artwork at the Gallery on Centre in the Hill District and at other locations. 

“We’re capturing the entire entrepreneurship mindset,” says Debra Titus, the school’s entrepreneurial education coach. “Our students have confidence, poise and a level of collaboration I’ve never seen in my life.”

Expanding its mission

After operating for more than a decade as a chartered public school in the Penn Hills School District, Penn Hills Charter now plans to share its expertise with other schools in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties that serve low-income areas where residents “are historically underrepresented in entrepreneurship,” says Wayne Jones, the school’s CEO.

In December, the Richard King Mellon Foundation awarded a $250,000 grant to MicroSociety Inc., the Philadelphia-based nonprofit that provides the educational model for grades K-6 at Penn Hills Charter School of Entrepreneurship.

Debra Titus, entrepreneurial education coach at Penn Hills Charter School of Entrepreneurship. Photo by John Beale.

The funds will be used to train staff to deliver curriculum to students and educators from other districts through virtual and in-person learning sessions and events.

The aim is to recruit up to three new schools into the network, MicroSociety said in a news release. 

“Our expansion will give many more students in Pittsburgh exciting opportunities to improve the technology, academic, social, emotional and career-readiness skills they need to succeed in the high-tech, high-skill, high-wage workplace of the future,” said Carolynn King Richmond, president & CEO of MicroSociety. 

The nonprofit Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship supplies programs for seventh and eighth graders at Penn Hills Charter School of Entrepreneurship. 

The school opened in 2011 in a former Penn Hills elementary building in Verona. In 2016, it relocated to its existing site in another former Penn Hills School District property on Main Street. It leased the 51,000-square-foot facility before acquiring it for $3 million in 2018. 

Current enrollment in grades K-8 is about 450 and administrators project that more than 500 students will attend the school during the 2023-24 academic year. There is already a waiting list with 100 names. 

Wayne Jones, CEO of Penn Hills Charter School of Entrepreneurship, stands in the school’s hallway. Photo by John Beale.

“That’s a good problem for us to have,” says Jones. “There’s a positive buzz surrounding our school.”

Approximately 80% of enrolled students live in Penn Hills; the rest come from neighboring districts including Gateway, Plum, Woodland Hills, Wilkinsburg and Pittsburgh Public Schools. The majority are Black students. 

To accommodate its steady growth, the school is constructing an 11,000-square-foot addition that will include a playground, expanded parking and outdoor lighting. 

A $12 million bond issue led by PNC Financial Services Group is funding the project. A $1.5 million Pennsylvania Charter School Program Grant is being used for new furniture, equipment, staffing and a passenger van. 

Economic mobility

When Covid shutdowns forced schools to shift to remote learning, Penn Hills Charter was prepared to offer its core subjects virtually, says Jessica Zuk, the school’s principal. But providing entrepreneurship lessons in that format was more challenging, she says.

In 2021, after learning the Richard King Mellon Foundation’s newly unveiled strategic plan included a focus on “economic mobility” — an innovative way of using education to help people move out of poverty status — Penn Hills Charter thought it might be eligible for a grant and invited foundation officials to take a look at its entrepreneurship-focused curriculum. 

Students Nicholas Stoltz, left, and Alexandria Glenn prepare a pitch for a product they believe will help alleviate back pain. Their pitch will be submitted in a competition run by Startable Pittsburgh. Photo by John Beale.

The philanthropy awarded $250,000 to MicroSociety for a pilot to convert its programs to an online platform including virtual banking for student transactions.

Also supporting the pilot were grants of $30,000 from The Heinz Endowments approximately $21,000 from The Pittsburgh Foundation and $18,000 from The Grable Foundation

The pilot program includes developing partnerships with local universities including Duquesne University and the University of Pittsburgh, nonprofits and businesses.

Besides daily class times devoted to entrepreneurship, the concept is woven into core classes, says Zuk. In English, for instance, students apply letter-writing skills to their businesses. 

They also elect student government representatives to help run the MicroSociety.

Cassidy Johnson, 10, is the current vice president; Alaya Franklin, 11, is Speaker of the House. 

“It feels good to be a leader, especially when I speak,” says Alaya as she and Cassidy, both 5th graders, lead visitors on a tour of the school.

On May 12, the school will hold its 6th annual Soaring Shark Tank Pitch Competition at Green Oaks Country Club in Verona. 

Students in seventh and eighth grade from Penn Hills Charter and other schools will deliver five-minute pitches that detail their products, financials and the social responsibility elements of their firms. Cash prizes will be awarded. 

Joyce Gannon is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.