Charter school keeps students in classrooms

Saturday, October 25, 2003

The Lift for Life Academy in St. Louis is one example of why Missouri parents have been demanding charter schools.

A 1998 state law authorized charter schools only in St. Louis and Kansas City, the Missouri school districts dealing with the most problems in public education. Two years later, the Lift for Life Academy opened -- under the sponsorship of Southeast Missouri State University -- in a converted mechanic's garage with 60 sixth-graders and a goal of giving more personal attention to each student and keeping children in school.

It worked. Today, there are 240 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at the school, which grew into an old bank building near Soulard Market. There could be 50 more students -- the waiting list is that long -- but the administration wants to keep the numbers more manageable.

Charter schools are public schools run with taxpayer money but without some of the requirements -- an elected school board or a high number of certified teachers, for example -- of public school districts. They also are permitted to seek as many donations as possible for operating expenses. Such schools must be chartered by Missouri's state-supported universities.

The idea is that with a less restrictive environment these schools will try more innovative ways to reach their students.

Lift for Life has met its goal of keeping students in school. The children there say they like to get on the bus every day, a feeling they didn't experience in crowded St. Louis public schools. They don't even seem to mind the uniform of khakis and white or blue shirts.

The school is associated with a gym that operated on many of the same objectives as the charter school: to give students guidance and to keep them busy instead of getting into trouble on the street. At the charter school, children are still encouraged to spend their time staying fit instead of becoming involved in less healthy activities.

The charter school has attracted the attention of some famous people. Rams running back Marshall Faulk visited just a month after the school opened and presented administrators a check for $10,000. He has continued giving of his time and money over the years.

Only 73 percent of the school's teachers have regular teaching certificates, while another 18 percent have temporary or special-assignment certificates. Southeast won't let its own student teachers train there because some of Lift for Life's instructors have certifications or have strong backgrounds in the subjects they're teaching.

And the students' Missouri Assessment Program scores for the last two years have been low. None of the seventh graders tested proficiently in science, for example, and only 4.2 percent of them were proficient in communication arts.

However, there is something to be said for a school that is willing to take inner-city children, who don't traditionally do well on standardized tests, and start working with them to prepare them for the future.

Having these children in school -- and wanting to be there -- gives students a stronger foundation than having those same students drop out.

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