By George Waldon

The Arkadelphia Promise is nearing the completion of its freshman year, and the numbers indicate favorable returns. The scholarship program, which helps high school graduates pay for college and advanced training certificates, had a 90 percent retention rate among first-semester participants.

“We think that’s pretty good,” said Jason Jones, executive director of the Arkadelphia Promise. “The big tell-tale will be in the fall.”

The first-year class started with 91 of its 123 high school graduates opting to attend college, about 74 percent. The year before the local promise, about 62 percent of the Arkadelphia High class of 2010 attended college in the fall.

Increased enrollment in the Arkadelphia School District accompanied the program’s launch. After dropping 18 percent during the previous 15 years, enrollment in fall 2011 was up 1.9 percent.

“If you take that trend into account, we would’ve seen a 2 percent decline last year,” Jones said. “In that respect, it’s a 4 percent swing. There are lots of factors to enrollment going up or down, but the Arkadelphia Promise has had a positive effect.”

The program is modeled after the El Dorado Promise launched in January 2007 with a $50 million endowment from Murphy Oil Corp. In Arkadelphia, two local charities stepped up to make 50-50 funding commitments

to support 15 years of scholarships for high school graduates.

Phil Baldwin, former CEO of Southern Bancorp Inc., and Ross Whipple, chairman of The Ross Foundation “were instrumental folks to make that happen,” said Dr. Wesley Kluck, co-chairman of the Clark County Strategic Plan. “This was every nonprofit’s dream of making a life-changing impact on their communities. This was one of those rare opportunities.”

Scholarships through the Arkadelphia Promise have a maximum value equal to the highest tuition and mandatory fees at an Arkansas public college or university when combined with

Arkansas Scholarship Lottery money. In 2011-12, that combined maximum was $7,174.

The qualifications for lottery scholarship and the Arkadelphia Promise are identical: High school graduates must achieve a 2.5 high school GPA or 19-plus ACT score or equivalent.

Participants must maintain a 2.75 cumulative GPA and complete 27 semester hours the first academic year and 30 semester hours each year thereafter.

An added boost to the Arkadelphia Promise is a college preparatory class designed to help at-risk ninth- through 12th-graders improve their ACT scores and avoid remedial classes.

The charter class of this program will be graduating next month, and supporters hope the improved ACT scores of four to six points among nearly all the participants will result in even more college graduates.

“Our work on it has now drawn the interest of people in other communities,” Kluck said.

Civic leaders in other parts of the state have visited with Arkadelphia officials in hopes of replicating the program.

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