Daughter follows mom's footsteps to Lift for Life Academy as charter school expands

ST. LOUIS — K'Mora Hill sailed through her first day of kindergarten like she'd been there before, just like her mom.

Chrishy Kirkendall graduated eighth grade from Lift for Life Academy in 2007 when it was just a middle school. The academy's high school opened in 2008. This year is the first for the primary grades.

K'Mora, 5, and her classmates are the first with a chance to attend the charter school in the Soulard neighborhood from kindergarten through 12th grade. Kirkendall said she had wished for more years at the school. Knowing her daughter has that opportunity is comforting, she said.

"It's like I'm starting all over again," Kirkendall said after saying goodbye to K'Mora in her classroom. "I know she's in good hands."

Construction workers were still laying flooring in the hallways on Wednesday when 40 kindergartners arrived for their first day. Eighty first graders and second graders joined them on Thursday. The school will add a third, fourth and fifth grade class in each subsequent year.

Public charter schools like Lift for Life are tuition-free but run independently from public school districts. Any student living in St. Louis can attend a charter school in the city.

Lift for Life was one of the first charter schools to open in St. Louis nearly 20 years ago. Charter school enrollment has since grown to nearly 12,000 children, or more than one-third of the city’s public school student population. Along with Lift for Life, two other charter elementary and two middle schools are opening in south St. Louis this year.

Lift for Life's co-founder, Marshall Cohen, said the elementary school was the missing piece in the mission to prepare students for college or careers. Many of the school's students come from low-income families and start middle school below grade level in reading and math, he said.

By enrolling students in kindergarten, "We're setting a foundation to get them where they need to be," said Jasmine Ray, an eighth grade math teacher at Lift for Life who dropped off her son, Cameron Benson, 5, for kindergarten in the adjacent elementary school building.

On the first day, Cameron and K'Mora's teacher, Danielle Price, said she wanted the children to start their school careers with a strong first impression.

"Some of these kids have never been to preschool," she said. "We can set the tone and have that impact on what we want school to be."

As for K'Mora, kindergarten is a big hit.

"I like how it has more toys," she said.