Lift For Life Academy Empowers, Uplifts & Educates

Lift For Life Academy had a good problem to solve. A donor expressed the desire to establish an Endowment Fund for the school, but “the problem was, we had no idea how to set one up,” says Marshall Cohen, Lift For Life Executive Director and Co-Founder. Cohen says the Finance Committee of the Board decided to send out requests for proposals to three potential managers, including YouthBridge.

In the end, the choice was clear-cut, he says. “Solid, well-led foundation, with a long-term focus on children and youth, and a matching fund program to sweeten the deal, YouthBridge was the best solution for us.” YouthBridge also provides regular reporting and supports efforts to promote the Fund.

All youth in the city of St. Louis can enroll at LFLA, “and we accept every student as long as there is space available,” says Cohen. Eighty percent of funding comes from the state, so the school looks to corporate, foundation and individual donor funding to make up the rest and keep its promise of a positive, stimulating education for every student. “The endowment fund is particularly exciting for its long-term growth potential.”

Cohen is happy to leave the management of endowments to the experts, while he and his team focus on the business of educating in some very challenging times. Before the start of this school year, Cohen realized there was a bus driver shortage so he obtained his Commercial Driver’s License. He drives an elementary school route and will continue this commitment until the shortage ends. Cohen says the past couple years have tested (but not shaken) the school’s nearly 22-year commitment to providing a creative and engaging alternative to public school education for city residents. “If getting my commercial license and filling in behind the wheel was what needed to happen to get our kids to school, then that’s what we were going to do,” he says.

Growing up, Cohen met a lot of the kids from the neighborhoods he now serves while hanging out at his family’s business – Globe Drugs – on South Broadway. In 1988, he started Lift For Life (LFL) Gym, a fitness and weightlifting center in the basement of the drugstore. Today the gym is a full service after-school youth facility, located on Cass Avenue.

In 2000, Cohen co-founded Lift For Life Academy – the city’s first charter middle school – to expand his desire to provide equitable opportunities for low-income youth. “Our vision was and is to create a uniquely supportive environment where all students are valued and empowered to not just ‘get by’ but to maximize their full potential in school and in life,” says Cohen. This is achieved through targeted instruction, individual attention and holistic support, he explains. “We also offer challenging and career-oriented courses, and take learning outside of the classroom, because we want to expose them to all the places their potential can take them.”

Over time, LFLA added a high school and then an elementary school in 2019. The Academy currently serves K-4th and 6th-12th grades, with 5th grade to be added in the fall of 2022. The school, located in the Soulard neighborhood, has grown into a campus with nine buildings and more than 850 students. 
With 85% of students qualifying for the national school lunch program, Cohen says that serving the whole needs of the child is as essential as curriculum and instruction.

“Learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum; there are a lot of factors impacting student success, so we’re focused on ensuring they’re ready to learn,” he says. Besides providing free meals and transportation, LFLA has partnered with organizations to provide on-campus medical and mental health services for students and families, foster care support and other services.

The result of this unique model is that students are motivated to come to school. Daily attendance averages 93%, and the school maintains a graduation rate of 97%, with 2020 graduates earning more than $1.5 million in scholarships.

If you would like to donate or have any questions about this organization, please contact Allison McDonald.