Cover Stories

Life-Changing Help

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, college 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. “Too often in St. Louis, a child’s ZIP code pre-determines their life outcomes, and we’re working to change that,” says executive director Shelly Williams. “By eliminating barriers to education, students are invested in their futures and have a pathway to follow their aspirations.” 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 starts when students are in sixth grade, and counselors continue 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 and guide them through their senior year, when a college and career counselor takes over. Williams notes that this creates a strong bond with the students and Access Academy staff. “That individual attention and commitment makes the difference as students transition to—and persist in—their next level of education,” she says. “Our strong and trusting relationships allow us to understand their needs and help them address challenges.”

Along with counseling, Access Academies provides extended school day programs for enrichment in areas like academic and career development, the arts, STEM, and leadership and character growth. It also offers financial support in three ways: high school scholarships, work-study scholarships and preparation for post-secondary plans, including covering costs related to ACT testing, applications and college visits. “Our program contributes to the vitality of our region,” Williams explains. “Our students work hard and are committed to their education. They are future community leaders and productive citizens who are ready to make a difference.”

On Sept. 9, Access Academies will hold its 12th annual Celebration Dinner at The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis. To prioritize health and safety, there will be both in-person and virtual options for guests. All attendees will get a special look into the lives and achievements of students through a documentary screening. Williams says the event plays a major role in making the organization’s mission possible. “As our main fundraiser, the dinner supports every facet of Access Academies, from enrichment programming to helping make private school tuition affordable,” she notes. “Our students, families and partner schools work incredibly hard, and the support we receive ensures our enduring success.”

Access Academies partners with urban middle schools to prepare students for success in high school, college and beyond through enrichment, guidance counseling and scholarships. It hosts its 12th annual Celebration Dinner Sept. 9 at The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis. Pictured on the cover: Executive director Shelly Williams with Access Academies students. For more information, call 314.898.0430 or visit accessacademies.org.

Cover design by Julie Streiler
Cover photo by Bill Barrett

Pictured at top: Executive director Shelly Williams
Photo: Bill Barrett

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