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El Dorado Riding High on Murphy ‘Promise’

7 min read

About 10 years ago, when Claiborne Deming, the chairman and former CEO of Murphy Oil Corp. of El Dorado, first heard the idea of providing a free college education for every graduate of El Dorado High School, he thought it was “a great thought, but totally impractical.”

The idea came to him by way of Steve Cameron, the former president of First Financial Bank of El Dorado, who had noticed an article about a similar program in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in a pile of papers from a recent chamber meeting.

Deming said it wasn’t until he started going over the numbers with his director of planning several months later that he realized the program was feasible and at the same time a good investment.

“The company was cash-flowing a couple of billion dollars a year and $50 million to us, especially if you stretched it out over a number of years, which we ultimately did, really wasn’t that much money, and the bang for the buck would be so terrific,” Deming said.

Deming said that the thinking behind the program was twofold: to do something altruistic for the community, but also to make El Dorado a more attractive place to live and do business. The program’s launch came at a time when there was a “pall” over the community, with several businesses shutting down or moving out of town.

Today, more than 1,500 students have benefited from the program, attending schools across the country, with another 262 students eligible this year. The Promise is also receiving credit for being a catalyst for driving growth in the city and putting the brakes on decreased enrollment in the school district.

While the program is modeled after the Kalamazoo Promise, which provides full tuition to any Michigan public college, the El Dorado Promise is more flexible. Students who participate in the El Dorado program can attend any public or private college or university in the country and receive funding equal to the highest resident tuition in Arkansas along with mandatory fees. The students can receive funding for up to five years.

To be eligible for the program, students must have attended El Dorado public schools for the last four years and maintain a 2.0 grade-point average in college.

Schools Get Boost

Sylvia Thompson, the director of the El Dorado Promise, said things haven’t been the same in the district since the program was announced in January 2007.

“It was an unbelievable announcement. It was a total surprise,” Thompson said. “No one knew anything about it, and all of a sudden these students who were graduating in May found out they could have their [tuition] paid for,” Thompson said.

Thompson said that the program has changed the culture of the school to one in which college is a possibility for every student. She said students began requesting more Advanced Placement tests and that even kindergartners receive information about the program.

Thompson said voters also approved a millage later that year to build a new $43 million high school, which was designed to resemble a college campus.

“It changed El Dorado, Arkansas. It became a forward-looking community. … It just breathed life in this community,” Thompson said.

Superintendent Jim Tucker said he has also noticed the change in culture, which has led to the adoption of more pre-AP classes starting in the lower grades.

“Our college culture has really changed. You used to have to solicit students to take the SAT, the ACT. You had to solicit students to apply for college, but now this is a conversation that students have amongst each other starting in ninth grade at the latest,” Tucker said.

According to the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, 111 students who graduated from El Dorado High School enrolled in an Arkansas college or university in the fall of 2005 and 130 in the fall of 2006. Since the Promise was announced, the school has averaged about 174 students a year entering the state’s colleges and universities, including 224 in 2012.

The University of Arkansas’ Office of Education Policy released a report in April 2014 that highlighted some of the benefits of the program. The report noted that both student achievement and enrollment had increased in El Dorado since the program was announced.

“First of all, the enrollment data quite clearly indicate that the historical trend of enrollment decline in El Dorado has been stemmed by the announcement and implementation of the El Dorado Promise,” the report states. “From 1990 through 2005, the district experienced a 10% drop in enrollment. Since the Promise was announced in 2007, the district has grown 9% above its projected enrollment, while neighboring districts and similar districts have continued to experience declines.”

The report found that “traditionally disadvantaged” students, including black students, showed the most gains academically.

“Interviews with teachers, administrators, and counselors in the El Dorado School District yielded story after story about how all parties have worked to make sure that all students, regardless of background, are prepared to benefit from the Promise,” the report states. “The best illustration of the expansion of high expectations to all students came from a high school teacher, who wryly observed: ‘Our AP classes went from country club to parks and rec.’ Whether it is seen in the diverse enrollment in AP classes or in the numbers displayed in this report, the evidence is mounting that El Dorado is living up to its ‘Promise.’”

Other communities have also taken notice of the program’s successes.

Jason Jones, the executive director of the Arkadelphia Promise, which is funded by the Ross Foundation and Southern Bancorp, said that one of the first phone calls he made after he was hired in January 2011 was to Thompson. He said the Arkadelphia program mirrors the one in El Dorado in several ways, including how it deploys scholarships, educating students early about the program and interacting with students throughout their time in high school.

Jones said the El Dorado Promise has several more years of experience and data behind it, but Arkadelphia has seen positive results in its first few years, including an increased college retention rate.

“They’ve set the mark pretty high for the rest of us,” Jones said.

Thompson said that she still gets calls from communities around the country nearly every week asking about how to start their own promise program. She said she also attends the annual PromiseNet meetings, which allow school districts to meet with officials from promise programs around the country.

El Dorado Responds

The announcement of the Promise program also marked a turnaround for the city.

Decreased enrollment in the city’s schools reflected a declining population across south Arkansas.

The 2010 Census noted that the population in El Dorado was continuing to decline, as it had for years, down to 18,884 people from 21,530 in 2000, or more than 12 percent.

El Dorado Mayor Frank Hash disputes that the population decline was as drastic in reality as “on paper,” arguing that some people in the city didn’t respond to the Census. But he said he has noticed the community starting to bounce back in recent years.

Hash pointed to the millage for the high school and a 1-cent sales tax approved the same year, as well as initiatives to build up the city’s festival and event industry, as at least partially connected to the Promise program.

“That was probably the first huge initiative with Mr. Claiborne Deming. He probably got the whole ball rolling when he did that, showing how much the Murphy Corp., the Murphy family, has invested in El Dorado and continues to invest in El Dorado. No doubt that has sparked a lot of faith in this community,” Hash said.

Voters approved a renewed 1-cent sales tax last week, which will fund public works, as well as new construction and community development projects.

Thompson and Deming said that the Promise program will likely draw people to the city so their children can benefit from the program. But both said that whether those children choose to move away after school or return to El Dorado either would be a positive result.

Deming said he wanted students in the program to be able to “find their passion and their dreams and fulfill what they can in life to a maximum capacity.”

“If someone goes out of state or goes to some great college and decides to stay in that city, or go elsewhere, then that’s good. We’ve helped that person and we’ve helped society,” Deming said. “If that person decides to come back to south Arkansas, better for us, that’s great. But we didn’t want to limit it to that — to either Arkansas colleges or some requirement to come back. We really wanted it to be as open-ended and as appealing as possible because different kids have different aspirations and different ideas.”

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