LFLA founder Marshall Cohen (third from left) and students at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the school's new gym.

Photo from Janet Frain

Lift For Life Academy

St. Louis' first charter school works to provide an education to kids from over 20 zip codes in the city of St Louis, many of whom enter the school with skills well below their grade level

April 3, 2019

Educate, Empower, Uplift. This is the motto for the Lift For Life Academy (LFLA). Situated inside an old bank in the Soulard neighborhood, the school was started in 2000 as the first independent charter school in St. Louis city.

The school has 585 students in grades 6-12, and approximately 85% of them live in poverty. The founder of the school, Marshall Cohen, first opened the Lift For Life Gym in order to provide a constructive, after-school environment for at-risk youth in St. Louis. After seeing how behind those kids were academically, Cohen opened the Life For Life Academy as a way to set the kids back on track.

Currently, the majority of students enter the academy with reading and math skills that are 1-4 years below their grade level. With a graduation rate of over 94%, the school’s External Affairs Manager, Janet Frain, feels that the school’s unique environment is key in helping the students.

“I think it’s how Lift For Life has this wraparound service for the students,” she said. “We just seem to cover every need they could possibly have. And I think it gives them the support they need to move forward, and also helps guide them after they leave.”

I always say that there is no better place to become a good teacher than Lift for Life…when you get to practice on kids who come to us at least four grade levels behind with many, many issues that make learning difficult, you have to figure out how to make learning come alive.”

— Allison Owens

Senior Justin Plummer said, “Everyone at LFLA is like a family since the school is very small, and everyone tends to know everybody… This environment is a good one because you are around people that actually want to learn. This helps me and motivates me to do better and to succeed in life with my family at LFLA.”

The teachers at LFLA are crucial in creating a supportive environment. With their help, graduates go on to college, technical school, and the military.

“When I first enrolled in LFLA, I wasn’t as focused as I needed to be because I was coming from a school where the teachers didn’t care that much,” Plummer said. “LFLA has made me an intelligent, smart, successful young man. [The teachers] want to see us succeed in life and become a doctor, lawyer, or even a teacher. They care about us as if we were their kids instead of students.”

Teacher and head of the school’s math department Allison Owens has been at LFLA since 2004. Previously, she taught at Maplewood Middle School and Kirkwood High School. She transferred to LFLA after becoming intrigued by their unique mission.

Owens has never regretted the decision, saying, “I always say that there is no better place to become a good teacher than Lift for Life. Not only is the professional development the best in St. Louis and beyond, but when you get to practice on kids who come to us at least four grade levels behind with many, many issues that make learning difficult, you have to figure out how to make learning come alive.”

In addition to being available during the day and through email, teachers often go in on the weekends to help those who need it and attend students’ games and presentations outside of school.

“One of the biggest things that I hear repeatedly from students is that it feels like a family. It feels intimate and the teachers are very, very passionate about the kids and about teaching them,” said Frain.

The environment that the school’s teachers have created not only supplies students with the resources they need to succeed but also with the motivation.

We have created an environment where it is cool to be smart,” Owens said. “Kids try to get on honor roll and make proficient and advanced scores on state tests. When teachers come from other inner-city schools, they are in awe of the difference. For the first time in our history, we are seeing kids transfer to our school so that they are more academically challenged.”

This support has helped students like senior Nicholas Murphy grow in ways beyond just academic performance.

“I honestly dedicate the responsibility of who I am to Lift for Life,” Murphy said. “The summer before my freshman year, the guidance counselor, Ms. Kriss, pushed me and several other students to apply to the Wyman Teen Leadership Program… it was that once in a lifetime opportunity that kind of woke up the intellectual giant within me. From there on, I started to feed off of everything I could, and Lift for Life supported me with no hesitation.”

In addition to guiding students throughout their time at the school, LFLA works hard to help its students prepare for college and for the rest of their lives.  

“The other thing we do,” said Frain, “is we start introducing kids to college before they get here. In sixth grade, we start talking to them about college and we have two college counselors who help the kids prepare for the ACT, give them practice test… and basically just make sure that they have direction after they graduate.”

This support has helped students like Plummer and Murphy get a clear idea of their futures. Plummer will be attending Southern University and A&M College after graduation with plans to major in physiology and minor in sociology.

My biggest strengths are discipline, respectfulness, determination, dedication. LFLA did this to prepare me for the future. They played a major role because they taught me everything I needed to know. I have worked hard to become the person that I am today and I will use everything that my teachers and my administrators have taught me to the fullest,” Plummer said.

Murphy also attributes his success to his time at LFLA, saying, “I plan on attending a small liberal arts college in hope to mimic the same experience I’ve had at Lift for Life. Lift for Life has been an incredibly resourceful school for me and leaving is almost bittersweet.”

At the heart of its mission, the school aims to produce intelligent, kind, productive citizens who have the skills to overcome challenges they may face later in life.

Being a non-profit school, LFLA relies on donations and fundraiser. In the past, students from both Glenridge and Captain Elementary have raised funds and donated school supplies to the academy.

Through the support of the community, the school is able to provide an education to kids from over 20 zip codes in the city of St Louis, and make sure that they have the resources to be successful in life.

“I have gained lots of knowledge and gotten to know myself at this school,” Plummer said. “I have made plenty of friends and they helped me become the person I am today. [LFLA] offers more than just an education, they offer a lifetime full of knowledge, friends, and family. This has always been my happy place and will continue to be that.”


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