The Most Powerful Shift We Can Make
Elevate Academy: A LiFT Learning Partner Story
Elevate Academy is a very different sort of Career and Technical School. As an Idaho charter school offering at-risk youth an alternative to traditional school, Elevate is based on a deceptively simple question asked by co-founder Monica White. “How do we create a system that rewards kids for what they’re good at, and then support it with all of the stuff that they should know and be able to do when they graduate from high school?”
Now in its second year of operation, the answer to that question is evident. Elevate is far more than just a 55,000 square foot building — it is a maker space, a safe haven, and a strength-based oasis for disenfranchised students and innovative educators who are willing to reimagine secondary education.
Monica’s drive to innovate is rooted in empathy and a refreshingly stark analysis of the traditional educational model. “You take a kid who has failed math or failed english and they’re behind. In many schools, all of their interesting electives would be taken away to make them do more of the very things they struggle with the most. And then we wonder why they hate school.”
We’ve seen kids just skyrocket socially, emotionally and academically.
Instead, Elevate values ownership over compliance, and relationship over absolutely everything. “We’re seeing a whole different human show up, simply because we’ve made the decision to not be about compliance. We made it about them showing us what they can do, and we’re seeing this big, systemic change within our whole student population. We’ve seen kids just skyrocket socially, emotionally and academically.”
Technology that fits
When Elevate launched in 2019, the team quickly realized that their instructional technology was getting in the way. Built inflexibly around class silos and compliance, it was hindering their ability to be cross-disciplinary and learner-centered. Teachers were spending precious hours on workarounds to manage complex schedules and track tasks on spreadsheets. It was a serious situation for a new school, and Monica promptly empowered her teachers to find a platform that would put them back on track.
When they heard about LiFT from neighboring Idaho schools and evaluated LiFT’s multi-disciplinary, learner-led architecture, the fit was obvious. LiFT co-founder David Lipkin worked closely with the team to understand their needs and set up a custom workflow in LiFT that would help them stay true to their vision. As David said, “I am still amazed how expertly and rapidly the Elevate team embraced the platform and took ownership of their implementation. Their talent, commitment and core values combined perfectly with our experience building practical, sustainable competency-based systems.”
Plans to expand
Elevate’s strategic plan aims at opening five academies, with two already in the works. Their early challenges with a traditional LMS made it clear how important it is to find a long-term technology partner that understands their model. Monica describes the benefits of the Elevate/LiFT partnership as ‘mindblowing’. “LiFT is directly tied to our vision, our philosophy, our practice. It makes all the research and good stuff we do visible. I’ve been innovating in education for a long time, and having this level of alignment is unprecedented. It’s a win-win situation for our teachers and kids because everything matches, from the top to the bottom.”
And the work is just beginning. As new Elevate Academies launch, LiFT offers a consistent throughline via shared content libraries and a unifying competency framework. The teams meet regularly to compare notes and optimize the software so the Elevate experience can shine. David feels strongly about the role of technology in the educational redesign movement. His views are grounded in his background as an educator, mental health clinician and youth advocate. “Technology should never dictate how a school should operate. Innovation comes from the ground up, so we want schools like Elevate to pour their unique models into LiFT, not the other way around. As a change maker, we want to enable many different models of learner-centered practice to succeed. Our framework is very flexible, and we try to really listen. It may be more challenging to engineer a highly adaptable platform like LiFT, but when you see a school like Elevate run with it, it’s worth it.”
An integrated, authentic competency framework
Monica is humble when speaking of Elevate’s success, and is quick to praise her team’s contributions. Marita Diffenbaugh joined Elevate after serving as Mastery-Based Education Coordinator in the Idaho Mastery Education Network (IMEN). Excited by the opportunity to put her leadership experience into practice with the launch of Elevate Academy North in August 2022, Marita has focused on Elevate’s competency framework, curricular alignment, and core values. “At Elevate, we’ve integrated all of our core learning around career pathways, making sure that students master sets of skills that qualify them for real jobs in their local communities. We love how LiFT helps our entire competency-based model make sense. With the right tools in place, we don’t have to feel artificial promising one thing but doing something different. We’re able to proactively respond to real needs in our community.”
How learning leads to hope
Elevate students now see learning as a continuum. Their personal journey to mastery is curated in living, digital “skill portfolios”. Learners know exactly what growth looks like for every competency, and they have a library of projects and resources to unlock as they level up. In this outcomes based model, time is the variable and learning is the constant. Perhaps most importantly, Elevate students learn how to recognize, analyze and even celebrate the inevitable setbacks they call ‘cognitive conflict”.
These are lofty ideas, yet at Elevate they are much more than words. According to Monica, “That small thing of saying to these disadvantaged kids,’ Don’t worry. You can pick up where you left off, with whatever knowledge that you have, and carry-on by showing us how you are working towards mastery’ has created a sense of hope. It takes the unbearable and makes it completely doable. It puts light at the end of a tunnel that has never had a light at the end of it before.”
Elevate students learn how to recognize, analyze and even celebrate the inevitable setbacks they call ‘cognitive conflict’.
The most powerful shift we can make
“The shift that you see that’s most important to us, and we can physically see it in our kids, is they’re taking ownership over their education. To us, that’s the most powerful shift we can make. It’s no longer being done to them – they can see it’s being done for them. And then all of a sudden, they’re owning that journey. This was our goal from the start – for them to own that journey.”
The LiFT Learning team is honored by its partnership with Elevate Academy and proud of its role in their students’ successes. For more information about the LiFT Learning philosophy and platform, visit here. Special thanks to Monica and Marita and the entire Elevate team, for sharing their inspiring story.
Spotlight on Success: Who Gets to Drive the Truck?
A Story within the Story
Instead of avoiding real-world expectations and challenges, Elevate leans into them, making them as visible as possible for their learners. Here’s how Monica describes a watershed “ownership moment” as their young learners found resilience in the midst of a pandemic:
“We recently explained to our 7th graders all the Idaho State requirements for graduation. They really surprised us by asking if they could go back into their 6th grade LiFT portfolios and finish curating their evidence of learning. We weren’t going to require that in any way, but they wanted to get back on track, show what they were capable of, and erase the disruptions due to COVID-19.
It was so cool to see them actively ask to go beyond expectations. That’s what ownership does – we’re not driving the truck for them all of the time, they’re starting to drive their own truck because they see the purpose. And to me, when we take the philosophy and the system and all the research that we’ve done, and combine it with a tool like LiFT, the kids can see it and feel it and really take charge. That’s where the magic happens.”