For many of us, middle school is considered an awkward period, but there is no question that those years are a pivotal time for young people. As children become teenagers, they must work hard to comprehend the new responsibilities and challenges that come with more demanding schoolwork and new social groups. Opportunities for growth abound during this time, but if poverty and limited resources are added to the equation, the future can feel limited. Since 2005, Access Academies has provided support and opportunities for underserved students so they can thrive as they move to high school, college and beyond.

“Access Academies was created with the goal of removing roadblocks to education across the St. Louis region, especially for historically disadvantaged populations,” executive director Shelly Williams explains. “No matter a child’s background, we want to ensure they have the support necessary to grow and succeed.” 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 high school and post-secondary plans, including covering costs related to ACT testing, applications and college visits.

The third part of the equation is counseling. Access Academies starts when students are in sixth grade, and staff works 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. “Access Academies’ support follows students through high school and into college,” notes Mary McGeathy, a teacher at Sister Thea Bowman Catholic School. “As a teacher, I cannot do that. I can help them grow academically and teach them to strive for excellence and believe in themselves, but once they have finished middle school, my influence stops.”

McGeathy has a unique perspective on Access Academies’ impact on students. Having worked as both a teacher and administrator, she witnessed how difficult it was for students to attend Catholic or private high schools, even after Sister Thea Bowman Catholic School implemented special programs like arts and music, extended day and activities like chess, robotics and speech clubs. “Once we started working with Access Academies, the change was significant,” she notes. “Opportunities opened up for all, not just one or two students. Last year, every one of our eighth graders went on to attend a Catholic or private high school.”

On May 30, Access Academies will host its 15th annual Celebration Dinner at The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis. The nonprofit will honor McGeathy with the Pillar Award. “This year’s event is themed Every Step of the Way, and Mary truly exemplifies that in the great work she does with her students,” Williams says. “The Celebration Dinner really is a way for St. Louis to join in our vision for a vibrant community where all young people can dream big and achieve big. Equitable education is the key to making that a reality. Join us in ensuring every student has a path forward to success.”

Access Academies partners with middle and high schools to prepare students for success in high school and beyond through enrichment, counseling and scholarships. Its annual Celebration Dinner is May 30 at The Ritz-Carlton, St. Louis. Pictured on the cover: Mary McGeathy of Sister Thea Bowman Catholic School and Access Academies graduate support director Carmelita Spencer with students. 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 executive director Shelly Williams with students from Sister Thea Bowman Catholic School
Photo: Tim Parker Photography