John F. 'Sandy' Smith of Womble Carlyle
John F. ‘Sandy’ Smith of Womble Carlyle (Handout)

There are a lot of programs for gifted students. There also are a lot of remedial programs for the ones who aren’t making the grade. But it’s very rare to find something that reaches out to the middle third of young people, who just may have the most to gain.

I find that intriguing. It’s one reason I work with Odyssey—a program that over the summer brings students from Atlanta Public Schools to The Westminster Schools, one of the area’s leading private schools.

Several years ago the Woodruff Foundation gave The Westminster Schools three-year grants for several outreach programs. Bill Clarkson, who was headmaster, asked me to help keep the programs alive. Over the next few years, we rolled them into one collaborative education partnership, established it as an independent nonprofit organization and recruited a board of directors. In 2005 we named the program Odyssey.

Now, every summer, hundreds of students from public elementary and high schools in underserved areas of Atlanta come to Buckhead to attend Westminster for six weeks. The program has core academics, but it’s not what you’d think of as summer school; it also includes coaching in critical thinking skills and the arts.

The first year, it was really touching to see the teachers—more than half from the public schools and the rest from Westminster—pitch in and design a curriculum. They had to be extremely creative and modify the coursework to suit the practical needs of their customer—the average student. Testing at the end of the program showed the participants making progress; some who started behind their peers at the beginning of the summer were not just excelling by the end, but excited about learning more. Many have gone on to attend college.

It is still a wonderful symbiotic relationship. The Atlanta school system is a great partner, and I feel Westminster gets more than it gives. One key component of Westminster’s vision is for the members of its community to grow as life-long learners who “serve and lead” in a changing world. Odyssey helped give the institution a path to put that vision into action, while embracing diversity and broadening its view of both the city and the world.

The biggest success is that the model can be repeated. Odyssey’s motto is “a quest for knowledge, a path to college.” It is about using the summer to move the academic needle and create new opportunities. That idea may have started here, but it can be shared anywhere.

Sandy Smith, a partner at Womble Carlyle Sandridge and Rice, serves on a number of educational and philanthropic boards.