A Conversation with Aaron Story

On July 23, 2020, I had the opportunity to speak with Aaron Story, the CEO of Elevate Indianapolis. Elevate is an intensive mentoring initiative that serves students in the IPS school district. Aaron discussed his background, how COVID-19 has affected Elevate, and how the organization continually innovates to better serve the needs of their students.

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How did Aaron get interested in serving inner city youth?

 “I’ve been serving students in one form or fashion for fifteen—over fifteen years,” Aaron said. He started as a youth pastor and pursued additional volunteering opportunities with youth. Later, he helped start Indy Metro Church, which strengthened his connections to Indianapolis. He said that starting the church in the city led to greater consideration about “Who’s around us here and what are the needs? How can we be most effective in serving and loving and caring for our neighbors?” He went on to say that this “led into translating that heart for youth that I’ve had for long time to urban students who now live in the neighborhood that I live in…and become friends with my own kids.”

Aaron had the opportunity to run his church’s youth programming, including basketball teams and other initiatives. His church also started mentoring students at Arsenal Tech High School and looking for additional ways to meet needs in the city and the near eastside community. Aaron’s church recognized that Arsenal Tech and many other IPS schools do not have a PTA. This makes it harder for students to participate in sports and other activities of the high school experience, so they worked to make those opportunities possible.

 How did Aaron get involved with Elevate?

 A few years ago, Aaron was wrestling with how to be more effective at serving students in the city, many of whom face difficult life circumstances. Aaron wanted to address systemic racism and multigenerational poverty in a meaningful way for the city of Indianapolis. After considering a variety of options, Aaron took the position of CEO at Elevate about two and a half years ago.

Elevate Indianapolis started in 2015 as part of a national organization, Elevate USA. Elevate has about a dozen affiliate programs that operate in cities around the country. Since Elevate Indianapolis started, it has served over 750 students. Aaron recognized that Elevate is an effective model of investing in inner city youth, the majority of whom are Hispanic and African American.

Who participates in the Elevate program?

Most of Elevate’s programming focuses on high school students. The organization started serving at Arsenal Tech but has expanded to four additional IPS high schools. The kids who participate initially enroll in an elective class that they take during the regular school day, though the program also involves after school activities, special camps, and college and career trips. One of the most unique program features is the intensive mentoring relationship Elevate teachers have with their students. They are available for their students 24/7—including on weekends, breaks, and over the summer. Aaron believes the intensive and relational nature of Elevate sets it apart from other programs. He said, “Over the course of the year, if you have a kid in your class and then doing all those other activities, you develop some pretty deep relationships. That’s very unique, which creates very authentic conversations, authentic dialogue.”

While the most intensive portion of Elevate’s programming starts in high school, the goal is to build a pipeline that begins in 4th grade. Elevate does events in elementary and middle schools to help students gain exposure to the program and prepare them to be involved during high school. Aaron discussed how he wants to see more programming geared toward 7th and 8th graders, since that is a critical age for students.

Once students get to high school, they can enroll in the Elevate class. Students generally take the course for multiple semesters, sometimes as long as two and a half years. Though students stop taking the class, they are generally “bought in” to the program if they have taken the class for multiple semesters, Aaron said. This means that they will continue to show up to the extracurricular programming and trips Elevate provides through the end of high school.

Aaron said that there are always more students interested or more capacity that the schools would like Elevate to meet. However, Elevate tries to use their resources wisely and provide quality over quantity. Aaron emphasized that Elevate is not a “buckshot model.” He explained, “The goal for us wouldn’t be to serve 2,000 students at Tech. The goal would be for us to serve—let’s say—300 really well, knowing that those kids influence other kids, siblings, and friends.” He then shared a story of one Elevate student who also had an older sister graduate from the program. Though this student participated in all the Elevate activities herself, her favorite memory of Elevate was actually seeing everything Elevate did to celebrate her sister’s high school graduation. “The trickle-down impact on siblings and peers is very high. It’s not easily measurable, so it’s hard to preach to that, but that is the reality,” Aaron added.

In order to best use Elevate’s resources, they work with guidance counselors and social workers to identify the students best fit for the program. These students generally are not at the very top or very bottom of the class. Instead, they are the students on the margin, and Elevate has the potential to push them over the edge to success in high school and beyond, Aaron said. Elevate wants to get students who will attend the program and attain that level of buy-in Aaron mentioned, but they also work to bring out the potential in students who initially might seem difficult to engage.

What are some of the ways Elevate measures success?

Elevate measures student development between fall and spring semesters and between school years. Aaron said that measurable progress generally shows up after students have been in the program for three semesters. This makes sense, he said, because at that point, they are committed to the program.

Aaron discussed that one of the main tools that Elevate uses to measure success is a 42 question survey the students take in both fall and spring. A third party calculates the results of the survey and gives Elevate a report, which they use to evaluate their operations. Aaron said that for this survey, “We want to see: Are kids being more honest because of the program? Is the outlook of kids better because of the program? Do they feel more optimistic about the future?”

Informal surveys throughout the year also give Elevate a sense of how to steer their programming in “real time.” The IPS administrative data on the students in Elevate is an additional tool. That data gives Elevate an idea of whether the students are on track to graduate and how they are doing in their classes.

How does Elevate use the data to better serve its students?

Each year, Elevate teachers and staff go through the survey results and make adjustments to the program based on what the results tells them. One year, for example, Aaron said that they found they needed to increase the amount of one-on-one mentoring between teachers and students. This gave Elevate a chance to discuss how to facilitate more of those opportunities.

The surveys have also helped Elevate understand their students’ needs more specifically. Aaron explained, “One of our driving SMART goals this year is to be more academically centered on them, not just our program centered on them.” While Elevate wants the students to participate in the character development and life skills curriculum, they also realize that the students may have more pressing needs to keep them on track academically. Aaron added:

This year, one of our goals is to help kids become more aware of where they’re at academically because some kids just have no idea. Some of it is that they’re kids, some of it is their stressors are such that they’re not thinking about “Where is this going to lead me next semester or next year?”—they’re thinking about living this week.

Elevate is also considering the use of a college and career survey this fall. This would help Elevate tailor trips and programming directly toward the opportunities that most interest the students.

What does Elevate do to help reduce “summer melt”?

 Each summer, Elevate conducts a wide variety of programming for its students. An emphasis of this programming recently has been reducing the trend of “summer melt” for low-income students between high school graduation and the start of college. There are many barriers for these students in making the transition to college, which often prevent them from showing up, even if they have already committed to attending.

Aaron discussed that Elevate was hoping to do a test run of a four-week program with recent high school graduates this summer that would address summer melt. However, COVID-19 made it so they were only able to try about half of the initiatives. Nevertheless, Aaron still sees reducing summer melt—and helping the graduates of Elevate more generally—as an essential goal. He has been asking, “Even between first year and second year of college, even our kids that are in college, how do we help make sure that first year to second year, they don’t fall out? That’s very common for a lot of different reasons.”

Inner city students face unique barriers to completing post-secondary education. According to Aaron, “A lot of this, it’s not a lack of ability or talent or work-ethic even. It’s a lot of just if they’re stressing out about making it financially, if there is any financial hardship that comes up personally, that just gets in the way often.” Lack of educational opportunities and resources in high school can make college more difficult as well. Many IPS students do not have computer access at home and can be unprepared for the rigors of college. Aaron went on to say, “If you make it through your first year—if you make it through your first year—there may be a lot of legitimate reasons why you may not end up going back, the least of which—and you’re not giving up on yourself—but things get in the way, and you don’t see it being possible.” This is an unfortunate trend that Aaron has seen play out for many students, even many with full scholarships.

Elevate’s solution to these challenges always comes back to relationship. “For us, relationship is everything,” Aaron said. Elevate is still learning how to best maintain relationship with their students through the summer. Sometimes students have jobs that make it more difficult to participate in summer activities. Nevertheless, there is large group of Elevate students who will graduate this coming year, so Aaron and his team will do all that they can to ensure that the students do not lose sight of their dreams after high school.

What are Elevate’s goals and vision for the future?

Aaron always dreams about serving more students and expanding Elevate’s operations to other schools. However, he said, “We’re not looking too far ahead in the season that we’re in right now, just candidly. You’ve got to keep a little more of a short-term view, we’re looking three month to three month.” Nevertheless, he added:

We’ve got grant appeals and partnership collaboration conversations out there, which we’re thinking about. Expanding middle school would be a priority for us, again so we can really push in heavier before they get to high school. We think our outcomes would really increase in high school—we know they would if we started younger.

COVID may limit some of the extent to which Elevate can expand operations this coming year. Aaron explained that they have shifted focus to learning how to do virtual education effectively.

Elevate is preparing to run much of the program virtually this fall—and potentially for the entire school year. Since the program is built around constant engagement with students, Aaron said that this poses some challenges. Nevertheless, he said that the Elevate model is very flexible. He is additionally grateful to have support from Elevate USA and the affiliate programs in other cities and Elevate may be able to focus their efforts more on neighborhoods. In many ways, this is the time when the students Elevate serves need the program the most.

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