August 2016 Member Spotlight: Odyssey


Elevator Speech: With support and partnership from The Westminster Schools and Atlanta Public Schools, Odyssey launched in 2005 as an educational access nonprofit that runs summer and out-of-school time programming for highly motivated students in grades 1-12 with significant demonstrated financial, academic, and/or social-emotional needs. Odyssey’s primary focus is running a robust six-week summer academic enrichment program held on the prestigious campus of The Westminster Schools. The summer program enrolls around 36 students per grade level—over 380 students in grades 1-12 served annually—and attracts master teachers to provide rigorous academic courses focused on project-based learning. During the academic year, students are also given the opportunity to attend college fairs, college tours, participate in career exploration programming, be paired with a mentor, and receive college application and financial aid advising and support.

NPEA Member Type: Organizational Member
Interviewee: Jeff Cohen, Executive Director
Contact Information: jeffcohen@odysseyatlanta.org, (404) 609-6409
Location(s): Atlanta, GA
Year Founded: 2005
Staffing: 3 FTE, 1 part-time staff member, 45 seasonal paid staff, and more than 150 volunteers.
Students Served: Odyssey serves more than 380 students in grades 1-12 annually.
“About Us”: General Info, Reports, Board, Program Highlights, In the Media, Events
Get Involved: Volunteer, Employment, Donate, Contact Us, Subscribe to Updates
Main Website: http://odysseyatlanta.org/
Social Media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn


Click on the links below to learn more, or scroll down to read the full interview.

Q: Please provide a brief overview of your organization, Odyssey.
A: Odyssey’s mission is to expand the ambitions of Atlanta students and empower them on a successful journey to college and a fulfilling career. Odyssey’s primary focus is running a robust six-week summer academic enrichment program held on the campus of The Westminster Schools. Students selected to attend Odyssey are enrolled at schools in the Atlanta area and will be in grades 1 through 12 in the school year following the Odyssey summer. All expenses to attend Odyssey—from transportation to and from The Westminster Schools, to school supplies, to snacks and lunch—are provided to students at no cost through the generosity of our donors and supporters. Odyssey strives to create an engaging educational environment that gives students the ability to excel in the upcoming school year and beyond, and to find value and excitement in classroom learning.

Odyssey focuses on the highly motivated student who has significant demonstrated financial, academic, and/or social-emotional needs. A majority of Odyssey Scholars qualify for free or reduced lunch and are first-generation-to-college students. In a city with alarmingly low high school graduation rates for low-income, first-generation students, we are very proud that Odyssey alumni not only graduate from Atlanta high schools, but also many go on to pursue degrees at prestigious out-of-state universities, in-stage colleges, or military careers. Odyssey Scholars have access to cutting-edge, project-based learning curricula that is designed to offer hands-on experience for real-world scenarios. Each class has a theme that drives their summer program, and we demonstrate measurable improvement in each student’s reading, writing, and math so that each student is ready for their next academic grade level. Odyssey Scholars develop a life-long love for learning that keeps more than 80% of our students coming back summer after summer. Back to top.

Q: Please share a little more about the history of Odyssey, as well as its future plans. What significant events and/or people have shaped the mission and goals of your organization?
A: Odyssey was founded by The Westminster Schools. The program brought together several community outreach programs into one cohesive, 21st century learning academic enrichment experience. At its inception, Odyssey Board Chairs worked closely with Westminster President Bill Clarkson to build support and hire quality educators to develop the curriculum. Executive directors who were instrumental in Odyssey’s development include Barbara Levy and MJ Thorne. With great support from the Atlanta community and its leaders, Odyssey is living its five year strategic plan, which includes increasing and improving year-round program offerings, more focus on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art & Math), growing our enrollment to full capacity, developing a year-round program model, creating more opportunities for investors, enhancing our infrastructure and business operating model, and reimagining the experiential nature of our curriculum while maintaining high academic standards. Back to top.


Q: NPEA is committed to creating a culture of data with and for its members through NPEA Data Counts. In what ways does Odyssey currently use data to inform decisions and programming?
At Odyssey, we believe it is critical to be intentional about what we measure, rather than trying to measure everything regardless of its importance to our outcomes and programming. That being said, we are a very data-driven organization. It begins with our recruitment, which seeks to target students with the greatest potential, greatest need, and who can benefit most from our program. We work closely with the public school districts in this effort, and Atlanta Public Schools has been incredible about sharing their data appropriately with us. Our program tracks student progress through our SMART Objectives, which measure improvements in reading, math, PSAT scores, ACT scores, high school graduation, and college acceptance. We currently use Excel, Filemaker, and pre- and post-assessments to assist with data collection and analysis, and are currently working with IT consultants to continue refining these processes. The result has been a constant, evolving project-based learning model that focuses on developing the whole child and inspires them through experiential education. Back to top.

Q: With regard to partnerships and collaborations, how has Odyssey developed partnerships with other schools, college access programs, organizations, universities, and others to further the organization’s work?
A: Our two most critical partners have been The Westminster Schools and Atlanta Public Schools, which use our program to provide a really incredible model of the benefits of a public/private partnership. Together, they provide classroom and office space, transportation for students, and so many elements of our program that we simply could not function without. In addition, Odyssey works closely with Fulton County, the LEAD Ambassadors baseball program, Achieve Atlanta college access program, and a number of universities in the Atlanta metro area, including Georgia State University, Kennesaw State University, Georgia Tech, Spelman College, Morehouse College, the University of Georgia, and Clark Atlanta University.

Please email jeffcohen@odysseyatlanta.org if you are interested in learning more about becoming a community or school partner. Back to top.

Q: What challenges, if any, has your organization encountered in doing college access work? What has your organization learned from these experiences?
A: Our biggest challenge is understanding how to work with or around the many opportunities and struggles that high school students experience, rather than competing against those priorities in our students’ lives. Many of the high school youth we serve are expected to assist their families with childcare and/or part-time employment, while others may be athletes or in programs with time commitments that conflict with Odyssey. We learned that for recruiting and retaining our high school students, we need to market directly to the student, rather than marketing to the family as we do for middle and elementary school students. We also learned that we must challenge ourselves to make our high school programming and experiences more compelling, exciting, and directly relevant to the students we hope to serve. This included adding a Career Quest program, increasing the number of college visits, and offering students the opportunity to have voices in leadership and influence the direction of our organization overall. Back to top.

Q: Please provide a brief summary of how you came to be the Executive Director at Odyssey. What insights have you gained from your professional trajectory??
A: I fell into nonprofit work over twenty years ago, beginning with my work in the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization. I started out in Oregon and Washington, and honestly the first year of work at a nonprofit for me was really, really challenging. Immediately after I was hired, my supervisor quit, so I had little to no training and was in way over my head working with students who seemed interested in doing everything but listening to me. At the end of the year, I was contemplating a career move, when one of the more difficult students I worked with approached me privately after a session and quietly said, “Dude, you changed my life.” I decided to stick it out, and eventually I was promoted to regional director and moved to Washington, DC. I started to care more about the work, and honestly I got very lucky when job opportunities opened for me at the right times in my personal life.

My advice would be to never lose sight of working passionately to make lives better, and to keep yourself open to constant growth and opportunities. Become an expert on your product and in your industry, and get involved in your community beyond the workday. As far as advice for educational access organizations, I would offer:

  1. Listen to your students and their families. They know where they have been successful and their needs better than you do, even where your experiences overlap. Base your program model on what you learn from them.
  2. Never be completely satisfied with your current programming. Create an environment of formative assessment and continuous improvement, where staff and students are encouraged to take risks and make mistakes. This is where individual learning and organizational growth flourish.
  3. Make every day a special day for your students, your staff, and your families.

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Q: How has your organization benefited from membership in NPEA?
A: NPEA has provided tremendous professional development for our staff. The national conferences helped not only individuals on our team, but also introduced our organization to other models and programs that have been successful in other regions. For example, we went on the site visits to College Possible, St. Paul Academy and Summit School, and the University of Minnesota during the 2014 NPEA Conference in Minneapolis, MN, which provided a great look at nonprofits providing programming on both public and private school campuses. We have very much come to rely on NPEA as a credible source for data and educational resources. The information they provide is always relevant and current, and it has been helpful to meet like-minded professionals from across the country interested in college access. In addition, we participated in the 2015 NPEA Data Counts initiative, and look forward to hosting a regional event with NPEA in the fall of 2016. We hope to see everyone there! Back to top.