A nonprofit brings students like Alejandro Rico from Grant Park and other parts of the city to The Westminster Schools for a free program aimed at helping low-income students perform better in school and ultimately attend college.
“It helps me meet new people and understand new concepts in school and in life,” said Rico, who is in seventh grade at Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School. “It’s nice to be in the presence of people who want to help students.”
The program, called Odyssey, is its 17th year operating out of The Westminster Schools, an expensive private school with one of the largest endowments in the nation.
Odyssey isn’t for remedial or gifted students, but rather the students in the middle that may slip through the cracks, said Jeff Cohen, the executive director, on a recent tour.
“We’re looking for that average student who has potential,” he said. “They just need the same chance as the kid who gets to go to Westminster.”
The program accepts low-income students, measured through qualifying for free lunch at their public schools. About 80 percent come from Atlanta Public Schools, with the others coming from surrounding districts.
And Odyssey has proven results, Cohen said. All the students who attend graduate high school, and 100 percent of students who apply to college are accepted to at least one, he said.
“If there’s not equity, then the future is bleak,” Cohen said.
Odyssey recently started an alumni program to ensure students who attend college are supported and have mentoring available, he said.
The program gives each grade special projects to engage them over the summer, such as sixth grade’s task of determining how to make Atlanta more livable. The students walked the BeltLine to study gentrification and pedestrian access, he said.
Through these projects, the instructors can teach math, writing and reading concepts “sneakily,” he said.
Some grade levels tackle tough topics, such as school shootings, bullying, suicide and how those problems affect minorities, in “town halls.”
The program was started by Westminster, located in Buckhead on West Paces Ferry Road, in 2001, Cohen said.
“Westminster wanted to give back and to be part of the community,” he said.
The program runs during normal school hours, meaning many students are leaving their homes before 7 a.m. to take MARTA or ride Odyssey-provided shuttles, he said.
But the program has enough popularity that hundreds of students apply for the spots to be essentially in school for four to six weeks over the summer, depending on their grade level. Over 900 students applied for the 370 spots Odyssey had this year, Cohen said.
The students have strict attendance requirements and are only allowed to miss three days, he said.
Michael Hambrick, who was a guest teaching at Odyssey, said the commitment from the students to show up each day is “amazing.”
Odyssey absorbs most of the $2,500 cost to teach and feed each student for the entire summer of programs, lessons and field trips. It only requires families pay a $35 fee to show their committed to the staying in the program, Cohen said.
Odyssey also pays for its students to take the SAT, the standard test for college applications, he said.
Odyssey is a nonprofit funded through year-round fundraising efforts. Contributions come from foundations, individuals and corporations, with in-kind donations from Westminster through the free office and classroom space it provides.
It also relies on volunteers who assist instructors and help students. Many, like Micah Daly, are from nearby schools and return to volunteer for several years, Cohen said.
Daly, who attends Woodward Academy in Johns Creek, has volunteered at Odyssey for three years, he said.
“The kids are incredible,” he said. “They remember me every year. You realize you have such an impact on them and their future.”