For reinventing summer school
Odyssey programs combine classwork with hands-on experiences like forensics labs and video production.

Photograph by Ben Rose

Census data shows that Atlanta has a greater divide between wealthy and poor households than any major U.S. city. Here’s just one example of how those stats translate in real life: Children in some of Atlanta’s wealthiest families attend the Westminster Schools, where tuition tops out at $24,435, and the 180-acre campus resembles an Ivy League college more than a K-12 school. Meanwhile, in the Atlanta Public Schools system, 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and ninety-three of the 105 learning sites meet the government’s “Title 1” qualification as serving disadvantaged students.

Odyssey, a summer enrichment program for APS students hosted at Westminster’s verdant campus, bridges some of those gaps, giving students a chance to get ahead before the school year commences. Nine years in, Odyssey presents strong results: Students who participate during the summer show gains in math, science, and reading scores, while peers who do not attend summer programs are likely to lose skills during the break.

Peeking into Odyssey classrooms, it’s clear that this summer camp–summer school hybrid gets results through hard work disguised as serious fun. In Robinson Hall, Westminster’s tricked-out science facility, rising eleventh graders edit a movie they wrote and produced while ninth graders brainstorm ways to advertise the games they spent weeks coding. Sixteen-year-olds troubleshoot half-finished robots, referring to their math notes to get the calculations just right. In another room, students read The House on Mango Street to prepare for a discussion on breaking barriers and going to college. Seventh-graders participate in an immersive CSI experience, using math and science to solve a crime, producing investigative journalism to report on it, and taking the case to “court.”

Odyssey is designed to capture the interest of students who might benefit from a nudge in the right direction, not those who struggle the most. “We are looking for that B student,” says director Jeff Cohen. “We want high-potential kids from the middle third of their class.”

Odyssey teachers come from APS and Westminster, as well as from surrounding districts, providing students with a mix of perspectives and giving teachers a chance to compare best practices between very different schools. Westminster high school students serve as volunteers and assistant teachers in the elementary school program.

Through grants and donations from private foundations, businesses, and individuals, as well as support from APS, Odyssey provides transportation, breakfast, lunch, and supplies for 300 participants. Students, in turn, are held to high standards: Those who miss more than three days over the program (six weeks for elementary and middle schoolers, five for high school students) are asked to leave. “That’s not usually a problem we see,” says development director Tara Sweeney. “Kids want to be here.”

Odyssey’s motto is “A quest for knowledge, a path to college.” Beginning with reading skills in first grade, this mantra is adhered to until seniors have visited college campuses, taken practice ACTs and SATs, and written their college essays. For this year’s graduating seniors, the road map to college was clear: 100 percent were accepted to an institution of higher learning.