Elevate Academy, a public charter Career and Technical Education (CTE) school in Caldwell serving at-risk students in grades 6-12, has so successfully addressed an unmet need that the model is expanding across Idaho with two new schools opening this month, in Nampa and up north in Post Falls.
And that’s just the beginning, according to Elevate co-founders Monica White and Matt Strong. In 2024 an Elevate campus will open in Idaho Falls. In the next five years, they envision four additional schools opening, bringing the total to eight schools, serving about 450 kids each.
Elevate is a CTE school in the truest sense. It develops skills in its students that dovetail with jobs in local industries desperate for reliable and well-trained employees.
All Elevate students are at-risk under the state definition of the term, many of whom have struggled to the point of quitting their traditional schools.
Although relationships between school districts and charter schools can sometimes be tense, White and Strong have found that districts appreciate what they offer, because they take students that have been unsuccessful in more traditional schools and, so far at least, get them through high school and into higher education or well-paying jobs.
“We work with students who are completely disenfranchised and struggling, and oftentimes districts haven’t found a solution for them,” White said.
On top of that, with Idaho’s population booming, districts are having a tough time keeping up with demand, especially since in a politically and fiscally conservative state, getting voters to pass bond issues for new schools is challenging at best.
“You’re seeing more and more modular classrooms, you’re seeing class sizes increase,” White said. “In a lot of areas we are a safety valve with some of the most disenfranchised students. So I think that we’re adding value in communities in several ways now where superintendents are looking at this a lot differently than they were five years ago.”
Here are brief descriptions of the two campuses launching in August, initially serving students in grades 6-10 and adding 11th grade next year and 12th the year after that.
Elevate Academy North
Marita Diffenbaugh taught for many years in the West Ada School District, back when it was called Meridian. Throughout her years in the classroom, a basic question gnawed at her conscience: “Why can’t school be for every kid? it seemed like there were some students that the system wasn’t serving,” she said.
“There are individual teachers who do amazing things to try to fill that gap. But I was always a systems thinker. I thought there’s got to be a better way than expecting everyone to be in the same place at a certain date and time.”
Those questions led Diffenbaugh into administration in the Boise School District, with a focus on educational technology. But she soon realized that technology alone could not surmount the multitude and variety of barriers that held some students back.
Her next move was to begin working on larger systems issues and working toward a superintendent’s certificate. Through connections developed during that time, she developed a deep interest in mastery-based education, which focuses on students demonstrating what they know and can do rather than advancement through seat-time.
Diffenbaugh ended up as a mastery-based education coordinator at the Idaho Department of Education, and it was in that role that she first met Strong and White from Elevate.
“What they had was not only activating mastery-based education, but they had brought in careers in industry like I had never seen before,” Diffenbaugh said. “I had just completed some research with the state where we had studied 55 of the most rural school districts and this was exactly the gap. The gap was, are we really preparing students for jobs that are in our community?”
At the time, Diffenbaugh was planning a move to northern Idaho to be closer to her adult children and future grandchildren. During a chance meeting white at the state Capitol, White mentioned Elevate’s interest in expanding into the Coeur d’Alene area.
Bluum offered Diffenbaugh a fellowship that took her north “to form the question ‘does it make sense to open a middle-high School and CTE school all in one here?’” she said. “Not only did people think it made sense there was a warm welcome.”
Mayors from the surrounding communities unanimously supported the idea of opening an Elevate Academy. Diffenbaugh started outreach to area businesses and industries. It didn’t take long to forge 300 partnerships, willing to work with students, providing internships and shadowing opportunities.
Eventually, Elevate Academy North narrowed its focus to six trades: construction, culinary arts, business entrepreneurship, medical arts, automated manufacturing, and public safety, with a special focus on search and rescue and survival.
Months before opening, Elevate North had an enormous waiting list. Clearly, the concept hit a sweet spot in northern Idaho. The school’s brand-new building sits on five acres, and Diffenbaugh and the Elevate team are pondering how and whether to plan an expansion.
Diffenbaugh has been eagerly awaiting the mid-August opening for months. I just can’t believe that I get to do this. It’s such an incredible honor to be part of it,” she said.
Elevate Academy Nampa
Jewels Carpenter and Phil Diplock and their families have been close friends for more than 20 years, so the opportunity to run a school together is a dream come true.
The co-leaders of Elevate Academy Nampa complement each other well. Carpenter, a San Diego native, has deep experience as an educator. In college she studied to be an athletic trainer, but when her husband got a job in Idaho they moved from Stockton, California (“not an awesome place”) to the Nampa area.
Carpenter was hired at a local high school to teach sports medicine and medical terminology, which she did for seven years. She then moved into a state job with the Division of Career and Technical Education. Next, she became a vice principal at Columbia High School in Nampa before being promoted to run the district’s CTE programs, which she did for five years.
It was in that job that she first met Monica White and Matt Strong, and helped them write the charter for Elevate’s flagship Caldwell school. That included determining which career pathways should be the school’s focus. Eventually they recruited her to join the Elevate team. She was receptive because being in central administration wasn’t her first love.
Diplock started his career as a sheriff’s deputy in Los Angeles County, but suffered a serious back injury after 10 years on the job that forced him into an early retirement. Seeking a lifestyle change, he moved to Idaho with his family after leaving law enforcement.
Carpenter and Diplock worked together at Nampa’s Columbia High School, where Diplock was baseball coach, head of school security, dean of students, and eventually vice principal. “He was the most solid, trustworthy person that I could count on daily, emotionally and professionally,” Carpenter said. “I wouldn’t be doing this adventure of opening a school with anyone but Phil.”
Diplock and Carpenter left Columbia in 2020, after meeting Bluum CEO Terry Ryan and learning about the Elevate model. “We got talking about what would be my ideal school,” Diplock said. “Unfortunately, I was the guy in high school who if you struggled, you ended up in my office. And I didn’t really have a ‘what’s next’ to help kids. There was just nothing to keep a lot of them there and engaged.”
So when Ryan proposed to Carpenter and Diplock that they might want to join forces to run a new Elevate school, and offered them paid fellowships to plan the project, they jumped at the chance.
But for Diplock, it was wrenching. “One of the hardest decisions of my life was to leave Columbia. I loved it. I love what we were trying to do,” he said. “But to work in a program to keep kids who are struggling in school, those are the ones both Jewels and I wanted to work with.”
Elevate Nampa will offer eight trades: agricultural mechanics, horticulture, construction, business & marketing, culinary, medical Assisting, public safety, and computer programming and software development.
Supply chain glitches mean that the school will operate partially out of temporary quarters in a church for the first few months. Strong said it has been frustrating, but leadership, staff and families have been understanding.
Like its North Idaho sibling, Elevate Nampa is already over-subscribed. “We have waiting lists at every grade level,” Carpenter said. “It’s so cute. Middle school students are referring their friends.
Referrals are coming even from unexpected quarters. “We worked in the school district for 22 years and even though they weren’t happy that we were leaving and opening a charter school because we’re competition, they are also referring kids like crazy,” Carpenter said. “They just know that they’re not able to provide what we can, so they get over themselves.”
Meanwhile, Strong and White have turned over management of the Caldwell school, and are busy building a central team to oversee the entire Elevate network.
From White’s perspective, the sky’s the limit with the Elevate model. Once Elevate has eight Idaho schools open, further expansion is possible. White even envisions Elevate schools in other states.
“I’m trying to hold Monica back,” the slightly more reticent Strong said with a laugh.
Elevate Academy Caldwell, Elevate Academy North, and Elevate Academy Nampa, are Bluum partner schools and have received grant support from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation. The three schools have also received funding from Idaho’s Communities of Excellence federal Charter Schools Program grant.