Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

The visionary

Tuesday, March 14th, 2023

Melissa Taverner moved to Arkansas in October 2017 when she accepted the position of provost and dean of faculty at Lyon College in Batesville.

Before coming to Lyon, she was an associate professor of biology for 22 years at Emory & Henry College, a well-known liberal arts school in southwest Virginia.

Taverner is a Virginia native.

Last April, Lyon announced it was developing plans for the state’s first dental and veterinary schools in Little Rock as part of its College of Health Science. The college is partnering with a private company, OneHealth Education Group.

In May, it was announced that OneHealth is purchasing downtown Little Rock’s Heifer International campus to house the schools. Heifer International will remain, leasing space from OneHealth. A founding partner of OneHealth is Merritt Dake, previously chief executive officer of Rock Dental Brands.

“Soon after I got to Lyon, we began having serious discussions about the future of the school,” Taverner told me. “People mentioned that the time had come to add graduate programs, so we began to examine where the gaps are in higher education in Arkansas. What were the greatest needs?

“We also asked ourselves what were our strengths and how could we play to those strengths. Well, we’re really good in science and math. And Arkansas has a real need for dentists and veterinarians. It seemed to fit.”

Taverner has an exciting vision for Lyon. And I’m glad that vision includes downtown Little Rock.

I’ll have more in my column Wednesday on the Voices page of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. I hope you’ll check it out.

Whither Little Rock

Wednesday, September 16th, 2015

The social media morons were out in force last Saturday and Sunday.

Blaming a stadium for a college football team’s loss rather than a lack of preparation and a lack of execution is a new one on me.

But, yes, let’s blame War Memorial Stadium, not the coaching staff or the players at the University of Arkansas for that Citadelesque loss to Toledo (or was it Akron? All those MAC teams look alike to me).

On the morning of the game, the state’s largest newspaper (I happen to write a weekly column for that newspaper) had a large headline on the front of the sports section that read “Countdown to zero” with an altered illustration of a half-empty War Memorial Stadium.

It was as if the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette wanted to make the chance that the University of Arkansas will cease playing football games in Little Rock when the current contract expires at the end of 2018 a self-fulfilling prophecy.

No more Hog games in the capital city: That seems to have become the conventional wisdom, driven in part, I suspect, by the fact that the Razorbacks are now 1-5 in Little Rock since 2012 (and ignoring the fact that Arkansas has had a poor to mediocre football program since 2012).

I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion. The situation is, in fact, far more complex and fluid than the social media morons would have you believe.

I was a senior staffer in the governor’s office at the time of the original Great Stadium Debate (simply known as the GSD for you message board trolls) and was deeply involved in this issue. Just as was the case back then, the decision in 2018 will not be made by the athletic director in Fayetteville. It will be made by the members of the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees since Razorback games in Little Rock are such a part of the cultural fabric of this state. It’s bigger than football.

Just last week, it was reported that even though the University of Arkansas has the largest freshman class in its history, the number of students from Arkansas is down.

The Democrat-Gazette reported: “Growth largely has been based on an influx of out-of-state students. This year’s freshman class of 4,916 students continues the trend with 51 percent arriving from outside Arkansas. The size of the freshman class increased by about 7.5 percent compared with last year’s 4,571. UA spokesman Laura Jacobs said the university counted 15,237 students from the state. This is a decrease from the 15,329 Arkansans counted in the university’s 11th day enrollment report from fall 2014.”

Imagine that. The majority of students in the freshman class at the state’s flagship university are from outside of Arkansas. And that’s in a state that badly needs more of its high school residents obtaining college degrees (former Gov. Mike Beebe set a goal of doubling the number of college graduates in Arkansas by 2025).

If this trend continues, members of the board will have to take a strong look at whether the university still appeals to young people in places like east Arkansas and south Arkansas. Many Arkansans already are referring to the school as the University of DFW at Fayetteville due to the influx of Texans. Playing Razorback football games in Little Rock traditionally has been a part of the university’s strategy to connect with families who live far from the northwest Arkansas campus.

No one argues that the athletic department makes more money by playing games in Fayetteville. The numbers speak for themselves. Athletic directors must be concerned with things like that. Members of the board, however, are appointed to 10-year terms by the governor to look at the big picture. And the big picture is starting to play in favor of keeping at least one game a year at War Memorial Stadium as an outreach to families in other parts of Arkansas.

There are a number of misconceptions spread by the social media morons.

Let’s address a few of them:

  1. I read over and over that “no one does this anymore,” meaning the idea of giving up a game on campus to play somewhere else. Huh? We’ll just look at schools in this part of the country. Oklahoma and Texas still play each other every year at the old Cotton Bowl in Dallas because it’s a tradition. Georgia and Florida still play each other each year in Jacksonville, Fla., because it’s a tradition. Could there be a stronger tradition than the Razorbacks playing at least once conference game a year in Little Rock for 78 consecutive seasons prior to this year? Texas A&M will play games in both Houston and Arlington, Texas, this season. Auburn opened its season in Atlanta. Alabama opened its season in Arlington. North Carolina and South Carolina opened their seasons in Charlotte. Tennessee opened its season in Nashville. Missouri tried to play last Saturday’s game against Arkansas State in St. Louis. The Tigers played Illinois in St. Louis in 2002-03 and from 2007-10. The bottom line is that playing games away from campus is now becoming more of a trend, not less of one.
  2. I also read about the financial hit the athletic department is taking each time the Razorbacks play in Little Rock. The huge amount of money that Southeastern Conference schools are now receiving for television rights (the SEC Network has been successful beyond even the most optimistic predictions) make actual per-game revenue a smaller part of the overall athletic department budget than ever before. In other words, Arkansas can easily afford to make a little less money in Little Rock than it would make in Fayetteville if playing in Little Rock on one or two Saturdays each fall better advances the overall goals of the university. Bottom line: Per-game revenue is just not as big an issue as it once was.
  3. People point to the annual conference game against Texas A&M at AT&T Stadium in Arlington as a complicating factor. I don’t see it. There’s no reason the Hogs can’t continue to play at Jerry Jones’ palace while also playing at least one game (and maybe two in some years) at Little Rock. If the choice did have to be made between Arlington and Little Rock, members of the board would need to ask themselves this question: “Is it more important to the overall goals of the university to have a game each year in an adjoining state or in the largest city of the state where the university is located?”
  4. To those who claim that “nobody else is doing it,” I would at least request that they be consistent. Here’s what “nobody else is doing” in the SEC these days with the exception of Arkansas: Refusing to play in-state opponents. LSU was going to open the season this year with McNeese State before lightning forced the game to be called off. Auburn was taken to overtime last Saturday in its game against Jacksonville State, which is just 108 miles from Auburn campus. Mississippi State opened its season at Southern Mississippi. Georgia will close its season as always against Georgia Tech. It’s high time for Arkansas and Arkansas State to play each other on an annual basis.

A friend who has decades of experience in the world of Arkansas football recently laid out his “dream scenario” at a time when so many are predicting that college football is about to become a thing of the past at War Memorial Stadium. He said he can see the day when:

— UALR starts a football program (it’s already in a football conference, the Sun Belt, and has an athletic director from a football family) and plays its home games at War Memorial Stadium.

— Little Rock finally gets that bowl game it was so close to landing a few months ago.

— A coalition of legislators from northeast, southeast, southwest and central Arkansas pass legislation mandating that Arkansas and Arkansas State play each other in football each year at War Memorial Stadium.

I don’t see all of that happening.

But I do see the UA trustees taking into consideration more than just the football program when it comes time to renegotiate the contract with the War Memorial Stadium Commission.

I like Bret Bielema personally. I like Jeff Long. They’ve been nothing but nice to me. And I have good friends on both sides of this issue. I simply want what is best for the university and the state as a whole.

It all comes down to this: At a time when Arkansans now represent a minority of the freshman class at the University of Arkansas, there’s far more than the wants and needs of the athletic department to consider.

AICU: Locking the door

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

I locked the door at the North Little Rock office of Arkansas’ Independent Colleges and Universities for the final time Tuesday night.

Having had the opportunity to serve as the AICU president since January 2011 was a blessing. In fact, I enjoyed working for the state’s 11 private colleges and universities so much that I thought it was the job I would still be in when I retired.

But life is full of surprises, and the good folks here at Simmons First National Corp. offered me the chance to build something from scratch. It’s the kind of challenge I like.

June was one of the busiest months of my life. I had told the folks at Simmons that I would start work on June 1. I also had promised the 11 college presidents for whom I worked that I would get AICU to the June 30 end of its fiscal year. So I worked at Simmons until about 5:30 p.m. each day and then headed across the Arkansas River to the AICU offices for another three hours or so.

It was a relief to say so long to June. Yet it also was a bit sad to say so long to the organization that represents the state’s private institutions of higher education.

Of course, AICU traded up in the “Rex trade” since the new AICU president will be Dr. Rex Horne, who is leaving Ouachita Baptist University at Arkadelphia after nine years as its president. Rex Horne is among the most talented men I know.

In addition to Ouachita, the current AICU members are Arkansas Baptist College at Little Rock, Central Baptist College at Conway, Crowley’s Ridge College at Paragould, Harding University at Searcy, Hendrix College at Conway, John Brown University at Siloam Springs, Lyon College at Batesville, Philander Smith College at Little Rock, the University of the Ozarks at Clarksville and Williams Baptist College at Walnut Ridge.

The organization has an interesting history. What’s now AICU was founded in the spring of 1954 as a sort of United Way for private colleges. Charter members of what was known at the time as the Arkansas Foundation of Associated Colleges were Arkansas College (now Lyon), College of the Ozarks (now a university), Harding College (now a university), Hendrix College, John Brown University, Ouachita Baptist College (now a university) and Southern Baptist College (now Williams Baptist).

The stated mission of the organization was to:

— Interpret the aims, functions and needs of the member colleges to the public

— Solicit funds for the benefit of the operating budgets of member colleges

In 1974, the Independent Colleges of Arkansas was organized as a related organization. It was charged with representing private colleges and universities in the area of public policy. Meanwhile, AFAC continued its fundraising role. ICA and AFAC operated out of the same offices.

In addition to the seven members of AFAC, ICA member institutions were Central Baptist, Crowley’s Ridge, Arkansas Baptist, Philander Smith and Shorter College at North Little Rock.

AFAC changed its name to the Independent College Fund of Arkansas in 1983.

In 1993, Central Baptist became the eighth ICFA member.

In 1998, ICA and ICFA merged and became AICU. By then, Shorter had lost its accreditation and thus was not eligible for AICU membership.

During the organization’s more than five decades of existence, more than $20 million has been raised and distributed to member institutions. In the early years, the funds distributed to members were unrestricted and used for a variety of purposes. Now, all money raised is for student scholarships.

Retired military officers served as the paid executives of the association during its first two decades.

Gen. Hugh Cort led the organization from 1954-58 and was succeeded by Col. Cletus Bennett from 1958-68 and Col. Maurice Radcliffe from 1968-74. They traveled the state seeking support from businesses.

Even into the late 1980s, some annual gifts were as small as $50. In its formative years, the association’s budget was augmented by large gifts from Winthrop Rockefeller, who moved to Arkansas from New York in 1953.

The organization’s executive director now carries the title of president. There were four presidents in a 14-year period:

— Max Jones from 1974-77

— William Patterson from 1977-79

— Frank Ivey from 1980-82

— Ben Elrod from 1983-88

When Elrod resigned to accept the presidency of Ouachita, central Arkansas businessman Kearney Dietz was hired as president. He served for almost 24 years before retiring in January 2011. When we renovated our office, we named it the Kearny Dietz Office Suite in honor of his many years of service.

In the early years of ICA’s policy efforts, there were repeated attempts to pass legislation to provide a college tuition equalization grant to Arkansas students who chose to enroll in the state’s private institutions. Those efforts were unsuccessful.

When the achievement-based Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship was created by the Arkansas Legislature in 1991, students were allowed to use the scholarship money at either public or private institutions in the state. This represented a major policy victory for AICU.

In November 2008, Arkansas voters passed a lottery amendment that provides additional funds for the Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship program. Those funds still may be used by students at either public or private in-state institutions.

Though raising money for scholarships is still a part of what AICU does, governmental affairs and public affairs have become increasingly important through the years. The AICU president serves as the liaison between the 11 member institutions and the governor’s office, the Legislature, the Arkansas Department of Higher Education and the state’s congressional delegation. In the area of public affairs, the AICU president is expected to give speeches statewide and write articles to educate business and civic leaders about the importance of private higher education to the state’s economy.

My replacement grew up at Camden. Rex Horne was the 15th president in the history of Ouachita, which was founded in 1886. Prior to becoming Ouachita’s president, he was the senior pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church at Little Rock for 16 years. Before he became pastor at Immanuel, Dr. Horne was a pastor in Louisiana, Texas and Oklahoma. He was the president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention from 1995-97.

Dr. Horne completed his freshman year at Ouachita before finishing his bachelor’s degree at what’s now Lyon . He later earned a master of divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary at Fort Worth and a doctor of ministry degree from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He also was a weekly columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for 10 years while at Immanuel and is the author of three books. Under Horne’s leadership, Ouachita has significantly enhanced and expanded campus facilities.

AICU is in good hands with Rex Horne.

I could lock the door on that last night in June with a smile on my face, thankful that the time as AICU president had been a part of my life’s journey.

Garrett Uekman, Catholic High and ties that bind

Friday, December 2nd, 2011

When I wrote a newspaper column earlier this week on Little Rock’s Catholic High School for Boys, I knew I would receive feedback.

I don’t write columns with feedback in mind. But understanding how strongly Catholic High graduates feel about the place, I knew this particular column would generate calls, texts and e-mails.

As I noted in the column, I’m not a Catholic High graduate. Our oldest son graduated from there in May. The night he graduated as valedictorian (he is blessed to have his mother’s brains) was among the proudest moments of my life.

Austin is now at Hendrix College. His younger brother is a freshman at Catholic High. That means I’ll have the pleasure of being a Catholic High dad for another four years.

What I didn’t have in front of me when I wrote that column was the text of the amazing eulogy the school’s principal, Steve Straessle, gave at the funeral of Catholic High graduate and University of Arkansas tight end Garrett Uekman.

Here’s part of what he said: “Letting go of a good kid is hard to do. Letting go of an exceptional kid is almost unbearable. At Catholic High, we’re surrounded by boys who are striving to be exceptional young men. You should see them. They all enter our doors as scared, shaking little freshmen who are wondering if they can survive in a school with no girls and no air conditioning. Then, as seniors, they graduate as confident young men who know that they are armed with strong faith, a strong work ethic and the ability to endure life’s pitfalls.

“No easy roads are promised at Catholic High. Instead, Catholic High promises the strength to rise to challenges and to be more than just an average man. Oftentimes, we are fortunate to get a few freshmen who are not shaking and scared. We get a few of them who are quietly confident in their ability and revel in the challenges we present them. That was Garrett Uekman.”

Steve added this: “At Catholic High, we have one rule that encompasses all the others, one rule that transcends everything else and is at the heart of Christ’s message. That rule is: Never be a bystander. If your faith is tested, defend it. If someone is hungry, feed him. If one is downcast, encourage him. If your test is difficult, prepare for it. If your friends are troubled, step up. If the little guy needs you, be there. Bystanders watch life go by. People like Garrett Uekman get in the game. Bad things happen when bystanders are in the crowd. Good things pour forth when people like Garrett step up. You don’t live your dreams by twiddling your thumbs when action is called for. You live your dreams by getting into the game. It’s just that simple, and Garrett was the embodiment of that spirit.”

“That spirit.”

Spend some time around Catholic High, its alums and the boys who currently attend school there and you’ll know that spirit is real.

Michael Moran, who graduated from Catholic High in 1961 and later spent four decades teaching at the school, wrote a book titled “Proudly We Speak Your Name: Forty-Four Years At Little Rock Catholic High School.”

Through the stories he tells in his book, which was published by the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in 2009, he captures the essence of the school.

He sets the stage for the book this way: “Catholic High School for Boys was established in Little Rock in 1930 by Bishop John Morris at 25th and State streets, where Little Rock College and then St. John’s Seminary had formerly been located. In January 1961, CHS moved to 6300 Lee Ave. (now Father Tribou Street). The first graduating class of 1931 numbered five. Since then, more than 7,000 students have become alumni.

“Father George Tribou is the towering figure in Catholic High history. Coming to Little Rock from Jenkintown, Pa., George Tribou was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Little Rock and in the second year of his priesthood was assigned to CHS, where he served as teacher and principal for more than 50 years, until his death in 2001.

“Any recollection of Catholic High School would be incomplete without recognition of the centrality of Father Tribou’s role in defining its character. Even when elevated to the position of monsignor in his later years, he preferred to be called ‘father,’ a role he played in the lives of untold numbers of Catholic High boys.”

Ah, Father Tribou.

As a boy, he had worked as a film projectionist back home in Pennsylvania. He later would say that part of his inspiration for becoming a priest was seeing the movie “Boys Town” and Spencer Tracy’s portrayal of Father Flanagan.

His approaches were unique – and effective:

— Boys were sometimes allowed to settle disputes with boxing gloves. They would then spend the next day at school together and be allowed only to talk to each other.

— He once announced to the student body that he had seen a boy smoking a cigarette on the school grounds. He said that if that student did not show up in his office immediately, his penalty would increase. Within minutes, there were more than a dozen boys in Father Tribou’s office.

— He was known for getting to the point. When a number of urban schools began installing metal detectors, Father Tribou said of Catholic High: “That would not work here. These boys have too much lead in their asses.”

I know Father Tribou would be proud of the job Steve Straessle is doing in the role of principal.

At one time, Steve wanted to be a lawyer. After graduating from college in 1992, he decided he wasn’t quite ready for law school.

Steve, a Catholic High graduate and the son of a Catholic High graduate, called Father Tribou one night to say he was thinking about teaching history for a year before entering law school. As luck would have it, a history teacher at Catholic High had asked for a one-year sabbatical.

Steve’s grandfather had been a custodian when the school moved to its current location in 1961.

“My grandfather walked through these halls,” Steve told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette several years ago. “And while I’m walking through the school, I often can’t help but think of my grandfather sweeping the halls. I learned a couple of things from my grandfather — the importance of humility and hard work.”

He went on to tell the newspaper this about his experience as a Catholic High student: “It laid the groundwork perfectly for the next stone of education to be laid in college. It was also about Christian formation, and at Catholic High in particular, we still hammer home the idea that we want you to be successful. But success to us means that you are a good husband, a good father and a good citizen as well as a good member of your profession. My classmates were and still are my best friends. They were in my wedding. They are my closest confidants. They are the people who will carry me to my grave.”

At the end of that newspaper story, Steve had this to say about Father Tribou and about Catholic High: “He was a child of the ’40s. He was raised in the era of Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman and Humphrey Bogart. I was raised in the ’80s in the era of Van Halen and Charlie Sheen. Those are big differences, but there are some things that are timeless such as the adherence to the belief that rigorous academics and high expectations are the keys to success, the belief that self-discipline and work ethic are virtues and the idea that all ambition should be tempered by a doctrine of faith — and the absolute fact that a sense of humor is as important as an arm or a leg. This is our school. In succinct terms, this is what we do.”

As the father of a Catholic High graduate and the father of a current student, I’ve come to understand the Catholic High brotherhood.

Here’s how the school’s website describes it: “At CHS, boys experience a special kind of fraternity, often referred to by faculty, graduates and students alike as the Catholic High brotherhood. What forms this brotherhood? From time immemorial, challenges have bonded men, and the rigorous academics and strict discipline of CHS are certainly enough for that; but all-school masses, pep rallies with the skit cheerleaders, athletic events and intramurals serve to strengthen CHS boys’ brotherhood, rooted, as it is, in faith, laughter, competition and common goals.”




And common goals.

Sadly, it took a tragedy for many Arkansans to realize what a treasure resides in the middle of Little Rock.

God bless Garrett Uekman.

Long live Catholic High.

Ouachita at 125

Wednesday, September 7th, 2011

I can count on one hand the number of Little Rock Touchdown Club meetings I’ve missed since the club was formed in 2004. I especially hated to miss Tuesday’s speaker, former Alabama head coach Gene Stallings, someone I’ve long admired.

But my alma mater called.

Ouachita Baptist University celebrated its 125th birthday Tuesday.

On Sept. 6, 1886, the school opened its doors.

In a wonderful new book titled “Ouachita Voices,” my old history professor, Dr. Ray Granade, writes this: “Ouachita trustees chose as president a minister with impressive educational credentials named John William Conger who, at age 29, had already presided over a Tennessee college, founded an Arkansas one and headed Prescott High School. His charisma rested on erect posture, handsomeness, unfailing courtesy, self-confidence and genuine interest in people. ‘Dr. Jack’ combined strong-minded optimism and determination with a deep interest in the poor’s welfare, concerns that shaped the school’s course.

“Elected three months before Ouachita opened, Conger operated under a renewable two-year contract that made him solely responsible for everything. He assembled a six-member faculty (including him and his wife), prepared building and grounds, and advertised a school created not ‘as a financial speculation, but solely upon an educational basis,’ and ‘not run as a money-making institution.’ Free tuition for all ministers ‘irrespective of denomination,’ and their children, and a variety of other discounts, encouraged attendance but inhibited income.”

At Ouachita’s Founders Day celebration Tuesday, a number of Conger’s descendants were in attendance, tying the past to the present. One of them even carried Conger’s walking cane.

1886: It was the year the Statue of Liberty was dedicated, Coca-Cola was invented and construction began on the Eiffel Tower.

The Arkansas Baptist State Convention appointed a self-perpetuating board of trustees for a new college, which then met in Little Rock on April 8, 1886, to hear proposals from eight Arkansas cities.

After 72 ballots, the telegram came the next day: “College located at Arkadelphia.”

Arkadelphia was the state’s eighth largest city by the 1880 census. Five institutions were started there within a decade, and the city became known as the Athens of Arkansas.

By late 19th-century Arkansas standards, Arkadelphia was a highly progressive place.

Granade notes that “Arkadelphia’s first telephone system and waterworks arrived in 1891, electricity soon thereafter; two banks served the town after 1888; baseball games took place after 1887 in a 500-seat ballpark; and Arkadelphia Bottling Co. provided portable versions of fountain drinks.”

Many educational institutions opened across the state between 1875 and the end of the century. Most of them didn’t survive. Ouachita did.

Of the 11 private colleges and universities I now represent, Ouachita is the only one south of Little Rock.

Ouachita survived thanks to a string of strong presidents and other administrators along with dedicated faculty members.

I think of the men and women who served on Ouachita’s faculty during my formative years — people such as Francis McBeth, Joe Nix, Jim Ranchino and Bill Vining, all of whom were nationally known in their fields and all of whom stayed in Arkadelphia at salaries far below what they could have commanded elsewhere.

My parents — Ouachita class of 1947 and class of 1948 — hailed from Benton and Des Arc. They met in college and jumped at the first opportunity following graduation to return to Arkadelphia and establish a business. Long after graduation, they remained in love with Ouachita.

I was raised just blocks from the Ouachita campus in a house my family still owns. Those who know me understand that Ouachita is far more than my college alma mater. It is an integral part of who I’ve been since birth and who I’ll be until my death.

My earliest childhood memories are centered on the fall afternoons spent hanging out at the Ouachita football practice field. There were the other sports events I attended (I would be nervous at school all day if there were a Ouachita-Henderson basketball game that night), the concerts, the plays (in the third grade, I had the chance to be in a Ouachita production of “Our Town”), the lectures.

As noted, both of my parents attended Ouachita. So did my older sister (class of 1972).

Most people took for granted that I would attend Ouachita. Being a strong-willed person at the age of 18 (now, as the father of a strong-willed 18-year-old boy, I understand), I had different ideas.

I decided I would go after the Grantland Rice Scholarship, a four-year scholarship to Vanderbilt University for prospective sportswriters that was sponsored by the Thoroughbred Racing Association. Members of the Arkansas Racing Commission and the management of Oaklawn Park were enlisted to write letters on my behalf.

Interestingly, the president of Ouachita at the time, Dr. Daniel R. Grant, had come back to Ouachita (where his father had been president) after a distinguished career as a political science professor at Vanderbilt. It was Dr. Grant, in fact, who had written what then was considered the best college textbook on state and local government.

To his credit, Dr. Grant also worked to help me earn that Vanderbilt scholarship.

I finished as first runner-up (which got me no money) and made the decision to stay home and attend Ouachita.

It turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life.

Following a luncheon Tuesday, I asked Dr. Grant to sign my copy of “Ouachita Voices.”

Here’s what he wrote: “I hate to admit it, but I’m glad you didn’t get that Grantland Rice Scholarship to Vanderbilt University, and did come to Ouachita. Sometimes being No. 2 out of 500 applicants is best.”

That made my day. You see, Dr. Grant is among my heroes because he turned Ouachita around when the school was experiencing a rough patch.

He writes in “Ouachita Voices” that his opportunity to serve as president in 1970 “came during an unusual time when university presidents came and went in a hurry. It was a time of student demonstrations against the Vietnam War and a growing drug culture. ‘New college president’ stories were legion, and I think I heard all of them. Presidents’ average tenure during this era was said to be only 2.3 years.

“The search committee called me in early summer of 1969 and didn’t try to conceal Ouachita’s problems: a sharp enrollment drop; a $300,000 operating deficit and a similar deficit projected for 1970; very low faculty salaries on the national rating scale; strong criticism and weak support from Arkansas Baptist leadership; a deplorable condition of campus buildings; and faculty morale and public relations at a record low.”

Despite all of that, Dan Grant chose to “come home” to Arkadelphia.

He said a Vanderbilt colleague described the decision as being based on “God, father and alma mater.”

Dr. Grant’s father had been Ouachita’s president from 1934-49, steering the school through the depths of the Great Depression.

Dr. Grant writes of his father’s struggles to “keep Ouachita’s doors open, regain accreditation, pay of the burden of a mortgaged endowment and house a growing student body with renovated barrack structures.”

The first call Dan Grant made when he decided to become Ouachita’s president was to Dr. Ben Elrod, who at the time was president of Oakland City College in Indiana. Fortunately for Ouachita, one of the nation’s premier fund-raising experts answered the call to become Ouachita’s vice president for development.

Working together, Dan Grant and Ben Elrod rebuilt the campus during the next decade.

When Dr. Grant retired in 1988, Dr. Elrod left the job I now hold in order to serve as Ouachita’s president from 1988-98. He was replaced by my friend Dr. Andy Westmoreland, who served as president until accepting the presidency of Samford University in Birmingham, Ala., in 2006.

Since 2006, Dr. Rex Horne has led Ouachita. Enrollment this fall is at a 10-year high, and Dr. Horne’s dream of changing the student housing situation for the better has become a reality in just five years.

Now that I work for 11 college presidents, I more fully understand how demanding that job is — and how crucial an inspirational president is to the success of any institution of higher learning.

Grant, Elrod, Westmoreland and Horne — it has been a string of talented presidents who have led Ouachita these past four decades.

I can hear Gene Stallings speak another time.

Frankly, I wouldn’t have been anywhere but Ouachita on the occasion of her 125th birthday. Long may she flourish.

And go Tigers.

Teaching Arkansas history

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

A bill to put teeth into the law requiring public schools to teach our children Arkansas history failed to clear the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday at the state Capitol.

It’s not a surprise.

But it’s a crying shame.

As you might expect, the usual cast had problems with the bill, which is sponsored by one of my favorite legislators, Sen. Mary Anne Salmon of North Little Rock.

The Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators opposed the bill.

The Arkansas School Boards Association opposed the bill.

Even Tom Kimbrell, who heads the Arkansas Department of Education, stepped up to express concerns.

It’s always easy to find reasons not to do something.

“There are too many requirements already.”

“We’re too busy.”

Etc. Etc.

If you’ve spent much time in either the House Education Committee or the Senate Education Committee through the years, you know the drill.

I listened to the testimony on this bill on the same day two other things occurred — I learned that Chef Lee Richardson of Little Rock’s Capital Hotel had indeed won the Food & Wine magazine competition for best chef in the Midwest (even though Arkansas isn’t a Midwestern state; blame the magazine’s New York editors for not knowing), and I was handed the inaugural issue of Arkansauce, the state’s new food journal that’s published by the Special Collections Department of the University of Arkansas Libraries in Fayetteville.

Go back and read the post I did last week that was titled “Learning To Love Ourselves.” In it, I noted that while his cooking is indeed world class, Chef Lee’s real gift to our state is that he began to make us appreciate the things we already had due to his intense focus on local foods and local producers.

Meanwhile, in the introduction I wrote as the guest editor of Arkansauce, I said: “Unlike our boastful Texas neighbors, we quietly prepare great barbecue and other foods, enjoy eating it and then move on with our lives. Because the natives don’t brag, Arkansas food has never received the national recognition it deserves. In addition to the modesty of the natives, a reason for the lack of national recognition might be that people from outside the state have a hard time figuring Arkansas out. … The thing all parts of Arkansas have in common is that her people, while never boastful, are proud.”

Proud, yes.

Yet too many of us still carry the burden of that infamous Arkansas inferiority complex.

I feel strongly that teaching this state’s story (warts and all) to the children in our public schools — most of whom will remain in Arkansas and raise their families here — is among the most important things we can do.

Other states — think Texas — do a far better job of it than we do.

During the 2009 legislative session, Sen. Salmon sponsored a bill creating the Legislative Task Force On Arkansas History. She was the co-chairman of that task force along with Rep. Rick Saunders of Hot Springs.

There are some schools that do a good job of teaching Arkansas history. A lot of them do a poor job. The irony is that we now have more quality materials on Arkansas history than ever before.

The task force, which worked for more than a year, included representatives of state agencies, teachers and parents.

A 1997 law calls for 15 hours of annual instruction in state history for kindergarten through the fourth grade, 30 hours in the fifth and sixth grades and a one-semester history class for high school students.

The problem is that the law doesn’t have teeth and is too often ignored.

The bill that failed Wednesday would have required schools to document the time teachers spend on Arkansas history instruction and would have required high school seniors to pass an Arkansas history competency exam.

Ron Harder of the Arkansas School Boards Association said schools should focus on things such as math, literacy and science because “pride in the state will be derived by job opportunities and economic opportunities.”

I must beg to differ with his overall premise.

Are our schools in the business of simply teaching children to obtain jobs?

Or should our schools instead try to teach children — hopefully supplementing what’s learned at home, in church and in extracurricular activities — how to live a well-rounded, satisfying life?

I admit to an inherent bias. I come from a liberal arts background. I went to a liberal arts college. I majored in communications and minored in political science and history. I now work for our state’s 11 private colleges and universities.

Still, I believe all of us should be concerned by movements in our education system to get away from preparing the whole person.

Are we really educating or are we simply doing job training?

Bill Gates spoke Monday afternoon in Washington to the annual winter meeting of the National Governors Association. His comments troubled me. Inside Higher Ed reported the speech this way: “During a sprawling talk in which he emphasized the importance of using data-based metrics to figure out how to increase educational attainment while bringing down costs in both K-12 and higher ed, Gates said that when the governors are deciding how to allocate precious tax dollars, they might consider the disparity between how much the state subsidizes certain programs and how much those programs contribute to job creation in the state.”

Here’s how Gates put it: “In the college area, everybody should have a sense of which of the colleges — both community and four-year institutions — are doing very well. You can even break that down by the departments. It’s actually very interesting when you take higher ed and think of it in that way. The amount of subsidization is not that well-correlated to the areas that actually create jobs in the state, that create income for the state.

“Now, in the past it felt fine to just say, ‘OK, we’re going to be generous with this sector.’ But in this era, to break down and really say, ‘What are the categories that help fill jobs and drive that state economy in the future?’ — you’ll find that it’s not across the board in terms of everything that the state subsidizes.”

So is Gates striking out at the humanities?

Inside Higher Ed said in its story: “Defenders of the liberal arts, especially at public universities, have struggled to come up with a way to prove definitively what many of them believe: that liberal education is crucial to job creation. Vocational programs, whose curriculums are oriented toward teaching specific skills to feed demand in specific industries, are generally able to show their value in more tangible ways than are liberal arts programs, which tend to rely on the faith that their curriculums confer the sort of critical thinking skills that are transferable across different industries and might even give birth to new ones.

“Unfortunately, that kind of value is harder to quantify — and harder to commodify politically. Gates was, after all, talking to a roomful of politicians whose chances at re-election might turn on their ability to show job growth in the short term.”

I’ll conclude with the comments of Carol Geary Schneider, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities: “It’s my understanding that the Gates Foundation wants to prepare students for work, life and citizenship. But Gates’ remarks seem to shave off two-thirds of that vision while emphasizing a view of work-related learning that is much too narrow and unsettlingly dated. His call to focus on specific fields and departments, rather than the whole institutions, implies a sharp dividing line between general education and specific majors that is, in fact, a relic from before the Cold War.”

I fully realize that I’ve wandered from discussing K-12 education in Arkansas to talking about higher ed. I hope you get my point.

In an era when technology changes so rapidly, those who are simply learning specific job skills will find they constantly need retraining.

Those who have learned to think critically, however, will be able to make transitions more smoothly. And understanding our past is a key part of being able to think critically.

Yesterday’s defeat of Sen. Salmon’s bill was a victory for those who want to simply prepare children to obtain jobs rather than attempting to prepare them to live rich lives.

I’m sad to say that the vote didn’t surprise me in the least. Maybe it wasn’t intended, but here’s the message that was sent to our children: “Arkansas’ fascinating history and culture aren’t important. We have a standardized math test coming up.”

College bound from El Dorado

Saturday, February 5th, 2011

I wrote recently how excited I am now that my hometown has created a scholarship program known as the Arkadelphia Promise, based in part on the four-year-old El Dorado Promise.

Awarding college scholarships to all graduates of Arkadelphia High School — provided they meet certain standards — will do more to advance the town where I was born and raised than anything that has occurred there during my more than half century on this earth.

Four years into the program at El Dorado, the results of the $50 million commitment made by Murphy Oil Corp. are remarkable.

For years, the El Dorado School District had faced a slow but steady decline in enrollment.

The same thing has occurred at Arkadelphia despite the fact that the city is the home of two universities and is located on Interstate 30.

Here’s how the El Dorado superintendent, Bob Watson, puts it: “Nothing short of a bold initiative, which came in the form of the Promise, could reverse this trend.”

The El Dorado Promise was announced on Jan. 22, 2007. In the four years since then, enrollment in the El Dorado School District has increased 5 percent to 4,646 students. Consider the fact that enrollment in surrounding school districts has declined.

While El Dorado’s enrollment increased 5 percent from the fall of 2006 to the fall of 2010, the other five public school districts in Union County saw enrollment decrease 13 percent. Meanwhile, public school enrollment decreased 5 percent at Texarkana, 9 percent at Magnolia, 11 percent at Camden, 12 percent at Crossett and 14 percent at Fordyce.

It’s apparent that parents want their children to have the opportunity to attend college.

After spending 13 years in policy positions at the state and federal government levels, I’ve determined that the best thing Arkansas can do to ensure a brighter future is to increase the number of college graduates.

We’re next to last in the country — behind only West Virginia — in the percentage of residents who hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.

That must change.

It’s not just a problem among older Arkansans. According to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, just 26 percent of Arkansans ages 25-34 have an associate’s degree or higher, compared to 38 percent nationally.

It’s estimated that more than 60 percent of all new jobs will require a college education by 2018. Gov. Mike Beebe has said the state must double the number of college graduates by 2025.

My strong belief that this is the most pressing issue facing our state is one reason I took on the post of president of Arkansas’ Independent Colleges and Universities.

Since the Arkansas Supreme Court came down with its landmark Lake View ruling in November 2002, we’ve done a good job as a state improving K-12 education.

We’re also doing a better job getting students to attend college.

Now the task is to retain those students and ensure they obtain degrees.

Part of what we must do is change the culture of Arkansas, making far more families realize that it’s no longer enough in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century to simply obtain a high school degree and then find a good job in a manufacturing facility or down on the farm.

The jobs associated with manufacturing and agriculture are among those that have become increasingly high-tech.

We all know that policy changes are much easier to institute than cultural changes.

After four years of the El Dorado Promise, however, there seems to be a cultural change occurring in that Union County city.

“We have seen the atmosphere change as students, parents and teachers have embraced a college-bound culture,” Watson says. “From kindergarten, El Dorado students are introduced to the concept of college. They are encouraged to dream big, work hard in school and know that college can be a part of their future.”

The number of El Dorado students taking advanced placement and other rigorous courses has steadily increased. You see, there’s hope even in low-income families that college can become a reality.

The El Dorado Promise pays tuition and mandatory fees for all students who graduate from El Dorado High School, reside in the district and have been a student in the El Dorado School District since at least the ninth grade. Students can use the money at any accredited two-year or four-year college or university in the country. The maximum amount of the scholarship is based on the maximum resident tuition at an Arkansas public university. That’s currently $6,908 per year.

“We know that a big component in increasing the number of college graduates in Arkansas is overcoming financial barriers,” Beebe says. “The El Dorado Promise has shown how a community can help remove those barriers so that students are able to pursue college degrees and realize their dreams.”

Eighty percent of those eligible to receive an El Dorado Promise scholarship have gone on to college, exceeding state and national enrollment rates.

El Dorado students are using their scholarships at 54 colleges and universities. Twenty-one percent are at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado, 15 percent are at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, 10 percent are at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, 10 percent are at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia, 9 percent are at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, 11 percent are at other public institutions in Arkansas, 5 percent are at Arkansas private institutions, 11 percent are at out-of-state public institutions and 6 percent are at out-of-state private institutions.

In a recent survey of 117 El Dorado Promise students attending college, 98 percent said El Dorado High School prepared them well for college. Seventy-one percent of them said the El Dorado Promise influenced their decision to further their education goals.

The El Dorado Promise website puts it this way: “Low educational attainment has become a defining characteristic of our nation’s most economically challenged communities. While unemployment today touches all sections of the nation’s workforce, the jobless rate for those who have dropped out of high school is nearly three times that of college graduates. By taking down the financial barriers to attending college, the El Dorado Promise is increasing the number of students who go on to post-secondary education.”

The Lumina Foundation for Education has studied the El Dorado Promise and similar programs nationwide. The foundation believes these programs accelerate the necessary increase in the percentage of people receiving college degrees.

In its four years of existence, the El Dorado Promise has:

— Boosted enrollment in the school district

— Raised student expectations

— Improved student achievement

— Resulted in more students attending college

— Created tools for economic and community development.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if foundations, businesses and individuals could team up to create similar programs in even more Arkansas school districts?

The path to the promise

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

In the previous post, I wrote about the Arkadelphia Promise scholarship program, which was unveiled last week.

Though there are differences, the program is based on the El Dorado Promise, which was announced on Jan. 22, 2007.

The El Dorado Promise was made possible by a $50 million gift from Murphy Oil Corp.

The Arkadelphia Promise is being funded by the Ross Foundation and Southern Bancorp.

These two programs will help make El Dorado and Arkadelphia shining stars for the southern half of our state. Interestingly, the initiatives have their roots in a pair of great Arkansans who both were born in 1920.

I’m talking about Charles H. Murphy Jr. of El Dorado and Jane Ross of Arkadelphia. For each of these two south Arkansas business leaders, the family wealth had its roots in the pine forests of the Gulf Coastal Plain. And for each, the betterment of Arkansas was a passion.

Murphy was born in El Dorado on March 6, 1920, to Charles H. Murphy Sr. and Bertie Wilson Murphy. His father had moved to El Dorado in 1904 to operate a bank. It wouldn’t be long before the elder Murphy owned 13 banks. He also built a sawmill at Cargile in Union County and then built a railroad to supply that sawmill with timber.

“Land acquisitions in south Arkansas and north Louisiana led to oil exploration ventures, which provided royalties and operating interests,” John G. Ragsdale writes in a profile of Charles Murphy Jr. in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture ( “Murphy’s father had him manumitted by court order at the age of 16 so he could legally transact business for himself, and Murphy entered the petroleum industry as an independent operator — not affiliated with some of the major companies already operating in the area — while in his teen years. When his father had a stroke in 1941, Murphy had to take over management of the various businesses.”

Charles Murphy Jr. had attended the Gulf Coast Military Academy, an institution that had been founded in Gulfport, Miss., in 1912 by Col. James Chappel Hardy (the school no longer exists). He also had received extensive tutoring, including French. Murphy was a voracious reader until his death in March 2002 at age 82.

Murphy and his three sisters — Caroline Keller, Bertie Deming and Theodosia Nolan — pooled their business interests in 1946 into C.H. Murphy & Co. The company changed its name to Murphy Corp. in 1950 and to Murphy Oil Corp. in 1964. Charles Murphy Jr. would serve as president until 1972 and as board chairman until 1994.

“Murphy Oil Corp. developed from family timberlands in southern Arkansas and northern Louisiana that were owned by Charles H. Murphy Sr.,” Ragsdale writes. “… When oil was discovered in the Caddo Field north of Shreveport in 1907, Charles Murphy Sr., the owner of timber and banking interests in Union County, decided that his timber company should purchase land on a scattered noncontiguous pattern to provide more exposure to any oil development. When the large Smackover Field in Ouachita and Union counties was discovered in 1922, Murphy had oil royalty interests in it. He and joint operators owned about 100,000 acres in the Union County area.”

Education was important to Charles Murphy Jr. He served 16 years on the state Board of Higher Education and 10 years on the Hendrix College board. In 1980, he established the Murphy Institute of Political Economy at Tulane University in New Orleans.

“Beyond serving on boards and providing funding, he was active as a lecturer on economics, responsible civic actions, energy and education, never charging a fee,” Ragsdale writes.

Though Mr. Murphy was no longer with us by the time the January 2007 announcement of the El Dorado Promise was made, it was very much in his spirit.

The same goes for Arkadelphia’s Jane Ross. Though she is no longer with us, she would have been immensely pleased by what occurred last week.

Ross was born in Arkadelphia on Dec. 23, 1920, to Hugh Thomas Ross and Esther Clark Ross. She graduated from college at Henderson in 1942 and became a photographer for the Navy. Photography was her passion, and her family sent her to the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y., to study color photography.

“When Jane Ross returned to Arkadelphia following the war, she opened a studio, Photos by Ross,” Christin Northern writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “She owned and operated this portrait studio from 1948 to 1955. … Although Ross’ first love was photography, she gave it up as an occupation in 1955. The death of her father and family obligations outweighed her love of photography. Jane Ross was heiress to her family’s southwest Arkansas timber fortune. J.G. Clark, Ross’ grandfather, began an empire in the forest products industry in the 1880s. After her father’s death in 1955, Ross operated the large timber enterprise.

“In 1966, Ross established the Ross Foundation, a philanthropic organization, with her mother. The foundation’s financial backing came from Esther Ross’ timber holdings. Ross became the executive director of the Ross Foundation after her mother’s death in 1967, while still operating the timber business. She remained chairman of the board of the Ross Foundation until her death in 1999. However, in 1979, she relinquished some of the control over daily operations of the Ross Foundation to her relative, Ross Whipple.”

Whipple proved to be a shrewd manager of the foundation’s assets. He also turned out to be one of the South’s most innovative bankers. He took over Merchants & Planters Bank of Arkadelphia, which had been founded in 1911, and eventually transformed it into a regional banking company known as Horizon Bancorp. Following the sale of Horizon, Whipple formed Summit Bancorp in February 2000. It now has 20 branches stretching from Little Rock into southern Arkansas.

Whipple also runs a timber management company known as Horizon Timber Services and is the managing general partner of the Whipple Family Limited Partnership. He describes it as “a separate set of lands that are considered to be a charitable asset. We manage these lands like a mini-national forest. Since 1970, we’ve grown from 18,000 acres to about 65,000 acres through acquisition. … I cut my teeth in the woods. Those trees don’t talk back to you. Here in Clark County, the strong history of the forest industry as well as the future growth excites me.”

While Whipple was building his banking empire, another interesting development was taking place down the street from his Arkadelphia office. In 1986, then-Gov. Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Mack McLarty, Rob Walton and others joined up with foundations such as the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation to create a community development bank holding company. The goal was to use the proceeds from commercial banks to fund rural development activities rather than paying dividends to stockholders.

Arkadelphia-based Southern Bancorp has now become the largest and most profitable rural development banking organization in the country. The first bank it purchased was Arkadelphia’s Elk Horn Bank & Trust Co. in 1988. Since then, other banks have been purchased across Arkansas and in the Mississippi Delta. Southern Bancorp has grown stronger than ever under the leadership of Phil Baldwin.

A 2005 article in Arkansas Business described it this way: “Baldwin has brought fiscal discipline to an organization that previously seemed unable to reconcile its two halves, the commercial banking enterprise and the nonprofit organizations it supports.”

“Not only do I believe that you’ve got to stay in the black, but I think you’ve got to be high performing,” Baldwin said at the time.

How fortunate is a town the size of Arkadelphia to have two banking corporations such as Summit and Southern headed by visionaries such as Whipple and Baldwin?

It was fitting that they were front and center at last week’s announcement of the Arkadelphia Promise.

 Baldwin said one of the transformational goals of Southern for the communities in which it operates is to reduce high school dropout rates and increase college attendance.

“It sends the message that every child in Arkadelphia willing to work hard and succeed academically can attend college,” he said of the scholarship program.

Meanwhile, Whipple described it as “one of the best economic events that has ever happened to Arkadelphia as well as being a tremendous educational benefit for every graduate of Arkadelphia High School.”

In El Dorado and Arkadelphia, the dreams of Charles Murphy Jr. and Jane Ross live on.

The Arkadelphia Promise

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

I’ve told the story often.

The event was so traumatic that I remember it as if it were yesterday.

Saturday, March 1, 1997.

I was downstairs in our Little Rock home, paying bills.

Melissa was upstairs with our 4-year-old son and the new arrival, who was five weeks old (we had taken little Evan to a restaurant for the first time the previous evening — a Cajun place in west Little Rock called Big Mamou).

The tornado sirens went off. I told Melissa to come downstairs and bring both boys.

As Melissa walked down the stairs, she said to me: “Channel 11 is reporting that a tornado has destroyed downtown Arkadelphia.”

“Oh, television news people always exaggerate,” I quickly replied.

Just to be sure, however, I decided to call my parents’ home in Arkadelphia. When I got the “all circuits are busy” recording, I began to worry a bit. What if the television report proved to be true?

About 10 minutes later, the phone rang. It was my father, calling on his cell phone. Our home was fine. His downtown business was fine. But a mere block away from his business, the damage was incredible.

In what would go down as one of the worst tornadoes in Arkansas in the 20th century, 60 blocks of my hometown had been partially or completely destroyed.

I wasn’t accustomed to hearing my father’s voice quiver, but it indeed quivered as he said: “Call the governor and tell him to send in the National Guard. Main Street is gone.”

I was working for the governor at the time, so he knew I could get through quickly.

I hung up and called the Governor’s Mansion.

When the state trooper answered, I said: “This is Rex. I need to speak to the governor as soon as possible. It’s an emergency.”

“He’s on the phone,” the trooper answered. “I’ll get him a message and let him know you’re holding on the line and that it’s important.”

About a minute later, I heard the familiar voice of Mike Huckabee.

“Governor, I just spoke to my father in Arkadelphia,” I said. “He’s downtown, and much of the business district has been destroyed.”

He interrupted me: “I know. I was just on the phone with Percy Malone. He’s standing in the rubble of what once was his drugstore. I’m about to send in the National Guard.”

I drove to the Mansion, where we set up a command center that later was moved to the state Capitol as the magnitude of the destruction across the state became apparent. It would be a long day. Tornadoes had cut a swath across the state that Saturday from southwest Arkansas to northeast Arkansas, killing 25 people. To put it into contenxt, more people were killed by storms that day than were killed by storms in Bill Clinton’s entire 12 years as governor.

The next day, I rode in a National Guard helicopter with the governor from Arkadelphia all the way to Newport to view the damage. On Monday, we were back on the helicopter to fly to Hickory Ridge and Marmaduke in northeast Arkansas. There had been heavy damage in each of those towns before the storm exited the state.

On Tuesday, March 4, President Clinton came home to Arkansas and took part in a walking tour of what remained of downtown Arkadelphia.

Following the tour, a small group of us sat in a room at Elk Horn Bank and Trust (now Southern Bancorp). There was no electricity. The room was lit by candles.

Knowing I was from Arkadelphia, the president whispered this to me: “Don’t quote me (I figure that after almost 14 years it’s OK now), but most towns in the southern half of the state could never recover from something like this. Given the fact it has two universities and strong banks, Arkadelphia has a better chance to come back than almost any other town south of Little Rock would have.”

It’s interesting that he mentioned the banks.

I thought of President Clinton’s comments last week as people filled the football stadium at Arkadelphia High School. They were there to see the Arkadelphia Promise scholarship program unveiled. The initiative is modeled on the El Dorado Promise, though there are key differences. It’s something that will change the face of my hometown forever, and it’s being made possible by the Ross Foundation and Southern Bancorp. No longer will the families of Arkadelphia High School graduates have to worry about coming up with the money to pay college tuition and fees as long as their children meet certain standards.

Ross Whipple, the chairman of the Ross Foundation, is also the chairman of Summit Bank, which he began in February 2000. Whipple is recognized as one of the region’s top bankers. Meanwhile, Phil Baldwin’s leadership has solidified Southern Bancorp’s position as the largest and most profitable rural development banking organization in the country.

It’s unusual for any town anywhere to have two banking corporations as strong as Summit and Southern headquartered in the same community. It’s especially impressive that visionaries such as Whipple and Baldwin work within blocks of each other on Main Street.

Bill Clinton’s March 1997 comment about the importance of strong banks resonates today.

In a video message, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said: “More than a decade ago, you not only rebuilt Arkadelphia after a devastating tornado, you built it stronger. Today, you have been given another chance to get smarter, to prepare yourself to succeed, to pursue your dreams. I don’t think we celebrate success enough in education.”

Here’s how the website explains the program: “The goal of the Arkadelphia Promise scholarship is to increase the college-going rate for local students, reduce the number of students dropping out of college for financial reasons and provide for a more educated workforce. The Arkadelphia Promise is a game-changing effort — making a college education not just a dream but a reality for every child in Arkadelphia. A college degree is a passport to future prosperity for individuals, and a more college-educated workforce makes Arkadelphia a more attractive community in which to locate a business.”

Indeed, this is a game-changing initiative for Arkadelphia.

“Students who never considered college an option will now be free to achieve success that will better their future, their community and our state,” said Gov. Mike Beebe.

The superintendent of the Arkadelphia School District, Donnie Whitten, called it “the most significant event in the history of our school district.”

He’s right. I’m biased since I attended that district from the first through the 12th grade, but I always believed I received an excellent education in Arkadelphia. Because it was a college town, there seemed to be a greater commitment to education in Arkadelphia than you might find in other south Arkansas towns. A number of my teachers were the spouses of Henderson State University and Ouachita Baptist University employees. Now, there’s a pot of gold waiting at the end of the public education rainbow.

To be eligible for an Arkadelphia Promise scholarship, Arkadelphia High School graduates must be Arkansas Academic Challenge scholarship recipients and plan to immediately attend college after graduation. Academic Challenge is now mostly funded by the lottery. It provides annual scholarships of $5,000 for those attending four-year schools and $2,500 for those attending two-year schools in Arkansas.

All students enrolled in the Arkadelphia School District as of Nov. 16 — from kindgarten through 12th grade — can receive the full scholarship upon graduation regardless of the date of original enrollment. A sliding scale will be in effect for new enrollees.

Based on what has happened in El Dorado, the Arkadelphia School District should expect its student population to grow.

On Jan. 22, 2007, officials from Murphy Oil Corp. announced a donation of $50 million to create the El Dorado Promise scholarship program. The motto was simple — go to school, graduate, get a scholarship. The scholarship money was made available for use in schools both inside and outside Arkansas.

“For students, this is life changing,” El Dorado superintendent Bob Watson said that day. “Students who have worked hard but would not have been able to attend college because of financial limitations now have the means to do so.”

Since the El Dorado Promise was created, families have moved to the city from 31 states and 13 foreign countries so their children can attend the public schools. The El Dorado School District, after years of declining student populations, has had a 4 percent enrollment increase. The percentage of El Dorado High School graduates who enroll in college exceeds both the state and national college enrollment rates. Almost a quarter of those students are first-generation college students.

Last spring, former President George W. Bush was the keynote speaker for what’s known as academic signing day. Members of the El Dorado High School class of 2010 enrolled in schools ranging from Johns Hopkins University to the University of Michigan.

Two years following the original announcement, Murphy Oil officials announced an expansion of the program to allow more flexibility for students and their families. The expansion meant that students with scholarships and grants covering tuition now have the option to apply the El Dorado Promise funds toward other expenses such as room, board, books and additional fees.

“Living in Arkansas and getting the lottery scholarships is wonderful, but now living in El Dorado just got a lot better,” Watson said when the expansion was announced.

Arkadelphia and El Dorado are two of my favorite towns.

Now, they have something else in common — something very special.

Graduation day in Helena

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

Tonight at 7:00 on the campus of Phillips Community College in Helena-West Helena, the first class of seniors will graduate from what’s commonly known as the KIPP school.

If you closely examine how far these kids have come, you’ll realize just how remarkable this story is.

Gov. Mike Beebe will deliver the commencement address at what’s officially known as the KIPP Delta Collegiate High School. Mike Feinberg, one of the national founders of KIPP (which stands for Knowledge Is Power Program), will be there.

If there has been a more hopeful day than this one in the Arkansas Delta in recent years, I’m not sure what it is.

In 1994, Feinberg and a fellow teacher named Dave Levin began the first KIPP school in Houston after completing their Teach for America commitment. Since then, the KIPP network has grown to 82 schools (all public charter schools — these are not private schools) serving more than 20,000 students. The vast majority of the students come from low-income families.

Think about this statistic: Nationally, only about 20 percent of students from low-income families attend college. Of the KIPP alumni nationally, 86 percent have gone on to college.

The list of college acceptances for the class graduating tonight ranges from the U.S. Naval Academy to Vanderbilt to Notre Dame.

Scott Shirey showed up in east Arkansas eight years ago with a dream. With the strong support of a core group of civic and business leaders in Helena (as always, I’m going to dispense with that clunky hyphenated name in the hopes that Helena-West Helena will soon just become Helena), Shirey was convinced he could succeed where others had not in one of the nation’s poorest counties.

The KIPP school accepts all students on a space-available basis. Ninety-five percent of the students in Helena are black, and 85 percent of them qualify for the federal free and reduced-price school lunch program.

Major national supporters of the KIPP effort have included the Walton family of Wal-Mart fame and the Fisher family, which helped begin Gap Inc.

“Thanks to the support of the Fishers and the Waltons, our students are climbing the mountain to college,” Shirey says.

Since the partnership with the Fisher family begain in 2000, the KIPP network has grown from two schools to 82 schools in 19 states and the District of Columbia. John Fisher serves as the chairman of the KIPP national board and the Charter School Growth Fund.

A new member of the KIPP board is Carrie Walton Penner, a granddaughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton. She’s a trustee of the Walton Family Foundation, which last year announced a $1.5 million grant to expand the KIPP program in the Delta.

“KIPP’s success here in Arkansas and across the country is a model for what’s possible in public education,” she says. “My goal is to ensure that KIPP can continue to thrive for many years to come.”

The first part of that Delta expansion will come this summer when a KIPP middle school is opened in Blytheville. The new school in Mississippi County will begin with a fifth-grade class and add a grade each year through the eighth grade. After that, it’s likely a KIPP high school will begin in Blytheville.

There are now three schools in Helena that are part of the KIPP program — an elementary school, a middle school and a high school. The plan is to have 12 schools in four Delta towns during the next decade. Pine Bluff and West Memphis could be the next places to receive KIPP schools after Helena and Blytheville.

“Many of KIPP Delta’s graduating seniors never considered higher education before they started at KIPP as fifth-graders,” says Richard Barth, the KIPP CEO. “But because of their hard work and perseverance, these KIPP alumni will not only graduate from high school but also go on to succeed in college and life. … KIPP Delta is setting a new standard for rural education in the Delta and across the country. With KIPP expanding outside of Helena, there is tremendous opportunity ahead for students in the Delta to reach excellence.”

The goal of the KIPP Delta organization is to double the number of college-ready seniors graduating from high-poverty districts in east Arkansas by 2019. The term “college-ready graduates” is defined as graduating seniors who score at least 19 on both the math and language sections of the ACT, thus exempting them from remedial classes should they continue to college. That also would make them eligible for lottery scholarships in Arkansas.

If KIPP achieves that goal, imagine what that will mean for that often neglected part of our state.

Here’s how the school’s literature explains the KIPP approach: “KIPP Delta takes a rigorous, no excuses approach to education. In addition to a mandatory summer session, students are in class during the week from 7:30 a.m. until 5 p.m., along with every other Saturday. KIPP students complete up to two hours of homework a night, and KIPP teachers are available on cell phones after hours for help and to answer questions from parents.

“KIPP is proving what is possible in public education for underserved students.  . . . KIPP forms a unique partnership where teachers have the freedom to innovate, parents are encouraged to be involved and students have the opportunity to learn. Students, parents and teachers sign a learning pledge — called the Commitment to Excellence — which outlines the hard work necessary for success.”

During their years in middle school, the students who are graduating tonight moved from the 29th to the 91st percentile in math on achievement tests and from the 29th to the 84th percentile in language. The consistent focus on measuring and reporting achievement results continued through high school.

Here’s how Kane Webb put it in a Wall Street Journal column several years ago: “In a state under court order to fix its public schools, there aren’t many examples of educational excellence. But because KIPP schools are charter schools, they operate free of the bureaucratic baloney that chokes the creativity out of so many traditional public schools and their teachers. And Delta College Prep is a different kind of charter school. You notice it right off. World map-sized posters of students’ test scores decorate the hallways — the way you would see a ‘Go Team!’ banner at a public high school. … There’s a dress code and detailed instructions about how to behave in class, right down to when to raise your hand.”

Congratulations, seniors.

You’ve blazed the trail. Hopefully, your success will mark the beginning of something even bigger in the Arkansas Delta.