Hendrix Magazine

Above the Line

In 2009, Dr. James M. Jennings, Professor of Education and History, was awarded the Cynthia Cook Sandefur Odyssey Professorship.

The Odyssey Professorship has enabled Jennings to build upon work he and students had begun during two previously funded Odyssey projects called "Above the Line," which studied 22 third graders in the Forrest City School District in 2007 who previously scored "below" or "below basic" on the Arkansas Benchmark Exam, a state-sponsored testing program designed to grade the educational aptitude of public school students.

Following three weeks of intensive remedial studies utilizing the Above the Line Project curriculum, a majority of students improved their test scores in a number of subject areas.

"Our findings can be a roadmap for improving test scores in struggling school districts," Jennings said following the success of his program. "Specifically, providing intensive educational attention to these students, while arming their parents with proven techniques to continue the learning process at home, could drastically change the lives of these students and the educational footing of school districts fighting to meet minimum standards."

Through his Odyssey Professorship, Jennings expanded the project to examine a full grade level for a full school year at Junction City Elementary School and Retta Brown Elementary School in El Dorado. In the project, Hendrix students conduct research, surveying teachers and principals each quarter, and collect the data.

Jennings and the students work with Sheri Shirley, principal of Oakland Heights Elementary in Russellville, who serves as a third party evaluator of the student-collected data. Shirley was featured in Karin Chenoweth’s It’s Being Done: Academic Success in Unexpected Schools, which Jennings called "a leading book on turnaround schools."

Jennings is also teaching a course called Closing the Achievement Gap to six Hendrix students interested in local and state policy needed for turnaround school success. In the course, Jennings and students examine education policy in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana and, based on their analysis, will make policy recommendations related to turnaround schools.

"Hendrix students are very concerned with statistics that I’ve shared about what’s going on in the Delta," said Jennings. "They know that for students who are not succeeding in the third grade, there are long-term implications for high school success, and college and career choice."

"They realize they have a responsibility to address social problems," he said. "I was really surprised at how much students are really interested and concerned about what needs to be done to make these schools and these students successful. That’s a social justice project."

Your Hendrix Odyssey and the Odyssey Professorships Program have changed the academic environment at Hendrix, Jennings said.

"We’re creating possible solutions, as opposed to just memorizing information for a test," he said.

"Students come here with that interest," he said. "They want to be involved in decisions that shape their world before they step into it officially."

Your Hendrix Odyssey has also changed the way students and faculty members collaborate, Jennings said.

"We sit down as a group. It’s not just a case of the professor instructing them," he said. "We were solving it together, and it’s important to have that experience in liberal arts education."

Jennings, who joined the Hendrix faculty in 1992, has seen firsthand a renaissance of faculty and student research thanks to Your Hendrix Odyssey.

"Now there is an emphasis on and support for research, but we think of the student connection to research and how we can involve students in a meaningful way … and learn from them too. Odyssey did that."