RICHMOND -- Joyce Elaine Millender Kelly, founder of Odyssey School, was known as a tough but caring kindergarten teacher who took the goal of providing a quality education for each and every student personally.

"You just knew that she loved every single kid that came through her school -- good or bad -- she loved them all and she took it personally to see them succeed," said Dorris Holland, a longtime Richmond educator whose son attended Odyssey School nearly 30 years ago.

Kelly, who was affectionately known by students, parents and teachers as "Miss Joyce," died Sept. 14 following a short illness. She was 65.

A memorial service in her honor is being scheduled at Odyssey School, 1800 Barrett Ave., from noon to 3 p.m. Saturday.

Although Kelly's family is ending its involvement with the school and the doors will close as of Friday, it will continue to explore options with other individuals who may be able to continue operating the school, according to Larry Williams, Kelly's brother-in-law.

The small, three-room schoolhouse at the corner of 18th Street and Barrett Avenue in Richmond, with the sandbox and play structure inside a wire gate, looks unassuming, but it's been called "an oasis in the desert," signifying its importance in this tough Richmond neighborhood.

A pioneer in education, Kelly emphasized mathematics and science achievement for African-American students.

She repeatedly expressed to parents "all students need to excel in math and science regardless of their economic and/or social status."

Kelly graduated from UC Berkeley and founded Odyssey School 42 years ago. With no children of her own, she taught and raised hundreds of children.

Holland said she enrolled her son at the school -- at the time located on Coalinga Street in Richmond -- when he was 2½ because of the positive connection she felt with Kelly and because she was so highly recommended.

"I remember Trieco's first day of school, I accidentally closed his hand in the door. I didn't want to leave him, but Joyce told me he would be OK," she said. "I left and called back a little later, and he was fine. Joyce took him and put him on the kitchen counter and showed him love and attention. I trusted her completely from that day on."

Marini Lee met Kelly through a friend who was a former Odyssey student. Many of Kelly's students would regularly return to Odyssey to visit or even work at the school. Kelly became Lee's mentor.

"I owe who I am and what I do now to what Miss Joyce did for me," said Lee, who is an assistant professor at Eastern Michigan University training teachers. "She was my teacher educator, and now that's what I'm doing."

After graduation from Stanford University, Lee applied for Teach for America but was not selected. She said she sat in Kelly's living room disappointed as Kelly encouraged her. Kelly offered Lee a temporary teaching position while another teacher was on vacation.

"She needed a substitute for one week, and from that I ended up staying for three years," she said. "That's just who she was. She had a big heart."

Former Odyssey student Gbari Gilliam graduated kindergarten in 2000. He visited and spoke with Kelly before leaving for UCLA's summer program in July, the last time he saw her. He fondly remembered his kindergarten teacher.

"She was tough-talking but at the same time she was the sweetest lady. She could be stern and a disciplinarian, then soft and loving. She let you explore and learn and find yourself," he said.

Said Holland, "At a time when most kindergartners were not entering first grade as readers, Miss Joyce made sure her kids came out reading -- and reading well."

Kelly leaves two sisters, Genie and Shirley; one brother-in-law, Larry; four nieces and one nephew.

For more information on Joyce Kelly's memorial service, call Odyssey School at 510-235-4825.