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Sep 2005 / young minds :: email this story to a friend

Building Massive Brain Power
By Chris Cyr

While the St. Louis Public School system is in the process of restructuring and improving its performance, a number of parents are worried that their children won't receive the best education within the system. In response to this, some parents have opted to place their children in private schools, but the cost of private school is prohibitive for many families. Some of these families are turning to charter schools that promise a better learning environment, a more personal relationship with the student, and an overall better education than the student would receive in some of the more crowded public schools. Among the successful charter schools operating in St. Louis is Lift for Life Academy. While the name conjures up images of bodybuilders struggling to lift gigantic barbells over their heads, the name is actually a call to help lift the character of the students in the school.

curls Marshall Cohen founded Lift for Life Gym behind his candy store in 1988, out of concern for the children who frequented his establishment. His goal was to give the children a place to go and something to do, other than experiment with the drugs and violence so many were caught up in. Cohen, who had lifted weights since his youth and had participated in competitive weightlifting, knew that the gym would be a great tool to help build the character and self-esteem of the children who attended. His gym has since been a successful venture that has helped him reach out to the young people in the city.

In 2000, he took the mission of the gym one step further and along with his wife, Carla Scissors-Cohen, and their board of directors, opened Lift for Life Academy, a charter middle school sponsored by Southeast Missouri State University. The vision statement for the school states that its goal is to "provide educational opportunities for disadvantaged youth through small classes and specialized learning programs." Currently, 245 students attend Lift for Life Academy in grades 6-8.

According to Cohen, the primary focus for the school is to "get students caught up in and excited about education." He believes that students who are enthusiastic about learning will have more of a desire to finish high school and eventually attend college. The relatively small size of the student body helps the staff of about 25 teachers accomplish this goal. Teachers develop personal relationships with students and are able to learn each student's individual situation. This lets teachers address many issues before they come up.

One of the major focuses of Lift for Life Academy is literacy. In any subject, Cohen believes, literacy is essential. Students who read well are able to understand new ideas better. The approach seems to be working.

Cohen explains that at a recent Halfway Reunion (a reunion held for high school students who are "half way" to graduation), many of the students were taking advanced math and communications classes. Also, of the 64 students who've graduated from Lift for Life Academy, only 2 have opted out of high school in favor of G.E.D. programs.

Lift for Life Academy There is also an attempt to bridge the different courses students take. For example, last year for Black History Month, students learned about a quilting circle that made quilts themed around civil rights. The school's art teacher tied in his own lesson to this by assigning the students to make paper quilts with the same theme. To do this in one of the larger public schools would be difficult for teachers who teach hundreds of students.

According to Cohen, the attention students receive at the school is a key component of their success. Teachers focus on building the students' self esteem as well as helping them learn. Cohen feels that it's the attention to a student's sense of self-worth that helps him or her learn.

"We believe that we have yet to meet a child who doesn't want to learn, and I think that our approach with a small setting allows us to see substantial growth in the students — not only academically but with character as well," he says.

Cohen also stresses the importance of thinking about the future, but he doesn't want the students focusing only on the immediate horizon. "We don't really ask the students what high school they're going to. We instead ask what they plan on doing in college." By getting students to think that far ahead, Lift for Life Academy hopes kids create a self-fulfilling prophecy of success.

Chris Cyr can write you a story, do your taxes, and protect your family during a zombie apocalypse. Check out his blog at

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