For many young people, middle school can be a challenging time. When there’s poverty in the mix, these pivotal years can be harder still. But since its inception in 2005, ACCESS Academies has been a guiding light for more than 1,100 students, steering them through middle and high school and on to college. A vast majority of the students ACCESS takes under its wing are eligible for free or reduced lunch (a federal indicator of poverty), are first in their families to plan for college, and attend one of three local Catholic middle schools serving high-poverty populations. “We wrap our arms around the students and their families,” says Nick McDowell, graduate support director at Most Holy Trinity Catholic School and Academy. “By supporting these children in three key ways, we provide opportunities they otherwise would not have.”

By that, McDowell means the nonprofit’s three-pronged approach: after-school enrichment, counseling by a graduate support director and high school scholarships. He notes that in 2017 alone, ACCESS awarded more than $618,000 to 238 students, allowing them to attend more than 20 private college-prep high schools like St. Mary’s, Bishop DuBourg, Notre Dame, Chaminade, Villa Duchesne, Nerinx Hall and Christian Brothers College. “The application process for high school and college can be very rigorous and overwhelming,” McDowell says. “But we empower families by being a supportive presence every step of the way.” He adds that ACCESS covers ACT test prep, educational testing and college application costs, and notes that since 2005, 96 percent of ACCESS students have gained admittance to colleges, universities and other post-secondary schools.

All in all, the nonprofit makes a seven-year commitment to its students, beginning in sixth grade. But McDowell stresses that the support doesn’t end with college acceptance. He reports that ACCESS is in the process of hiring a college and career counselor whose primary role will be mentorship through the college years and into employment. “The bond we form with our students is very strong,” says McDowell, who oversees 48 middle-schoolers at Most Holy Trinity and 42 students at area high schools. “They are like family.”

McDowell also says ACCESS will expand its reach when it opens a new academy at Sister Thea Bowman Catholic School in East St. Louis in the fall. The other schools under the ACCESS umbrella are Most Holy Trinity and St. Louis Catholic Academy in North St. Louis and Saint Cecilia School and Academy in South City.

On June 6, ACCESS Academies holds its biggest fundraiser, the 10th annual Celebration Dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel. The event raises money to support high school tuition scholarships. The organization commits its scholarship support for all four years of high school.

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 annual Celebration Dinner June 6 at the Four Seasons. Pictured on the cover: Graduate support director Nick McDowell and principal Jessica Kilmade with past, present and future ACCESS Academies students at Most Holy Trinity Catholic School and Academy. For more information, call 314.898.0430 Ext. 4 or visit

Cover design by Allie Bronsky
Cover photo by Colin Miller of Strauss Peyton Photography

Pictured above: Nick McDowell, graduate support director at Most Holy Trinity Catholic School and Academy