by Alan Gottlieb
It’s safe to say that rarely has a public charter school been as welcomed into a community by the local school district and seemingly everyone else as Elevate Academy East, a career and technical education middle and high school opening in the summer of 2024 in the Idaho Falls area.
It will be Idaho’s fourth Elevate Academy.
“As we look at their mission as a school, and what they’re working to do, it aligns perfectly with what our district is working on, and what our purpose and overall vision for students is,” said Scott Woolstenhume, superintendent of the Bonneville Joint School District 93, adjacent to Idaho Falls.
The district’s board authorized the school, and sold a seven-acre parcel of land to Elevate to build a new facility. The land is adjacent to the district’s alternative high school and an industrial park filled with businesses that offer internship possibilities, including an auto body shop, a door and window fabrication company, and a cabinet shop.
Like its three sibling schools in Caldwell, Nampa, and Post Falls, Elevate East is in high demand because it promises to educate and prepare for the future 400 students that more traditional district schools have struggled to serve.
Elevate Academies are charter schools designed to help students at risk of dropping out find purpose and utility in education, specifically career technical education.
Elevate East is still refining exactly which industries will be its focus, and will base the final determination on local needs. The school website lists construction, welding/manufacturing, culinary arts, criminal justice, firefighting, business/marketing, graphic design, and medical arts as likely areas for students to study and gain experience.
All Elevate students are categorized as at-risk. In Idaho, that means meeting at least three of 13 state-set criteria, including low GPA, high absenteeism, serious medical or personal issues, involvement in the judicial system, or a student who is a parent or pregnant.
That Elevate welcomes students other schools reject or fail means that much of the opposition other charter schools face from school districts melts away. Superintendent Woolstenhulme said there is a simple reason for that.
“What I love about Elevate is that they are not concerned about being a top-ranked school in the state, or competing with district schools for students,” he said. “They are focused on the kids that really need them and that, candidly, are struggling in our schools.”
The school also earns a strong endorsement from Sean Coletti, the mayor of Ammon, the town adjacent to Idaho Falls where the campus will be located. “The Ammon-Idaho Falls area is strong on business and industry. It’s going to continue to get stronger, and we need more highly educated students coming out of K-12 to be able to compete for those jobs and get the training that they need to compete for those jobs,” he said.
“I’m happy to support it, and I’m very encouraged that it’s going to be in our neck of the woods.”
Elevate East is also popular locally because the man who will lead it, Logan Waetje, was born and raised in the area, and comes from a family of local educators. He is deeply connected to educators and others in the community, and his involvement has fostered trust and confidence in the new school.
Timothy (TJ) Nottestad, owner of Discovery Construction and Design, an Idaho Falls homebuilding company, said he was immediately enthused when he heard from Waetje about the Elevate concept.
Nottestad served last year as president of the local homebuilder’s association, so he was one of Waetje’s early calls when gauging interest in and support for building an Elevate campus in the area.
“I’ve known Logan for a long time, so when he reached out to get our take on the Elevate, I was more than willing to listen,” Nottestad said. “And when he described the concept, I thought it was a fantastic idea. I think Logan has a good grasp of his goals and what he wants to accomplish and I think he’s pretty much the perfect guy for that position.”
What especially appealed to Nottestad was Elevate’s dual purpose: Helping kids who were at risk of dropping out of school find a purpose and place in the local job market, and supplying businesses with much-needed skilled workers.
“A lot more people are leaving the trades than entering them,” Nottestad said. “We’ve had a hard time finding people, and some of my best guys didn’t go on to college, didn’t have a clear career path.. We trained them up and honestly, I wouldn’t trade those guys for anything.”
Elevate promises to provide him with more workers that fit this mold.
Waetje learned of Elevate and joined the team lead by veteran educators Monica White and Matt Strong after working for several years in local school districts on CTE programs. He was an administrator at Compass Academy, an Idaho Falls public high school, when then-superintendent George Boland visited Elevate’s flagship campus in Caldwell in 2019, its first year.
“He came to me after that visit and said ‘this is the type of charter school that could be a game-changer for at-risk students in our town,” Waetje recalled. “I went out and visited the campus and met (cofounders) Strong and White, and I fell in love with it.”
The three educators sensed they were kindred spirits, Waetje said, and discussed the possibility of working together in the future. Shortly thereafter, the Covid-19 pandemic threw a wrench in everyone’s plans.
In the fall of 2020, Waetje moved to the Idaho Falls central office, where he served as principal of the district’s new online school, as well as the director of digital learning. Late that year, Monica White reached out to Waetje to gauge his interest in helping Elevate open an Idaho Falls-area campus. Logan received an Idaho New School Fellowship administered by Bluum and funded by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation to work with the Elevate team in launching the school.
He was all in. He left the school district and joined Elevate at the end of the 2020-21 school year.
Elevate initially intended to open its new campus in the fall of 2023. But supply chain and other issues slowed construction of the new facility and pushed the opening back to the fall of 2024. This has afforded Waetje the opportunity to help out at Elevate’s two campuses that opened last fall, and to immerse himself in the organization’s culture.
“It’s been a lot of fun to go in and plug in with the new staff and, it’s also helped me anticipate the needs that we’re going to have here when we open here,” he said.
In the Idaho Falls area, people are eagerly anticipating the school’s opening 18 months from now. Nottstad, the contractor, said the homebuilders association is talking about helping the school with fundraising, a tool drive, or whatever else Waetje needs to ensure a smooth launch, as well as lining up internships for Elevate East students.
“We’ve started talking to businesses and some other people about being involved in this and the internship program,” he said. “We want to help get kids to plug into somewhere that after they graduate or while they’re going through the program, they have a next step where those companies will take them on and they can hit the ground running.”