Bright Futures: Access Academies

While many of us may be a little reluctant to think back to our middle school years thanks to a lingering sense of awkwardness, there is no question that it’s a pivotal time in a young person’s life. The transition from child to teenager comes with new responsibilities, challenges and opportunities for growth, but if poverty and a lack of resources are part of the equation, the future can feel limited. Since 2005, Access Academies has provided support for students who have been historically underserved so they can thrive as they move to high school and beyond. The organization partners with urban middle schools and assists participants through enrichment, counseling
and scholarships.

Access Academies’ mission centers on creating equitable opportunities in education. More than 90% of participants qualify for free or reduced lunch, a federal indicator of poverty. “We envision a vibrant St. Louis where education allows every child to think, dream and achieve big,” executive director Shelly Williams explains. “From health outcomes to social mobility to literacy rates, ZIP codes too often pre-determine so much about children’s lives. By removing barriers to education, we’re helping dismantle systems that disallow students to be their best selves.” The nonprofit’s results speak for themselves: 99% of graduates are accepted into private college-prep high schools, and 96% go onto college or other post-secondary institutions.

The program takes a three-pronged approach to education. Working with the middle schools, it provides enrichment through extended school days and summer sessions that help students develop academically while building character and leadership skills. It also offers financial support for tuition and preparation for post-secondary plans, including covering costs related to ACT testing, applications and college visits. “We help families navigate concerns about tuition, so they pay on average $195 a month to enroll their children in private high schools,” Williams notes. “As of last school year, we’ve awarded more than $8 million in high school and college scholarships and financial aid.”

The third part of the equation is counseling. Access Academies starts when students are in sixth grade, and staff continues working with them through their entire academic journey, a more than 11-year partnership. Graduate support directors help middle schoolers prepare and make important decisions about secondary school. That guidance continues through students’ senior years, when a college and career counselor takes over. “That individual attention and commitment makes the difference as students transition to—and persist in—their next level of education,” Williams says. “Our strong and trusting relationships allow us to understand their needs and help them address challenges.”

On June 1, Access Academies will hold its 14th annual Celebration Dinner at The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis. The evening will showcase the achievements of Access students and feature two performances from organizations that provide enrichment, Encore STL and Prolific People, which was founded by an alum. The nonprofit also will honor the dedication of Marie Kenyon, director of the Peace and Justice Commission for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. “The Celebration Dinner supports every facet of Access Academies, from enrichment programming to helping make private school tuition affordable,” Williams notes. “The support is vital to the success of our children and, in turn, the success and vibrancy of the region.”

ACCESS Academies partners with urban middle schools to prepare students for success in high school and beyond through enrichment, counseling and scholarships. its annual Celebration Dinner is June 1 at The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis. Pictured on the cover: Dennys Vazquez, Shelly Williams, Alfredo Vazquez, Judith Vazquez, Celia Pérez-Vazquez. For more information, call 314.898.0430 or visit

Cover design by Julie Streiler
Cover photo by Tim Parker Photography

Pictured at top: Access Academies Family the Pérez-Vazquezes
Photo by Tim Parker Photography

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