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ARKADELPHIA –  Tuesday’s announcement of the Arkadelphia Promise Scholarship, which will allow qualifying students in the Clark County seat to attend college free of charge, was big news for the community.

The new scholarship program was introduced during an Education Pep Rally held Tuesday at Badger Stadium with special guest Gov. Mike Beebe.

Trisha Bethell, a mother of three, attended Tuesday night’s event, which also included performances by the Arkadelphia High School Cheerleaders, Dazzlers, and the Badger Band, and the Arkadelphia Elementary School choirs.

“We were just ecstatic about it,” she said of the announcement, adding that she has 13-year-old twins and a 10-year-old. “I’ve been going to college in the past couple of years, and I know how hard it is just for me, and I can’t imagine, with three kids, … how much more expensive it will be.”

For qualifying graduates of Arkadelphia High School, the Arkadelphia Promise Scholarship will pay the difference between the amount of tuition paid by the Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship and the highest tuition and mandatory fees charged by Arkansas public colleges or universities, according to information released at the rally in Arkadelphia.

The scholarship may be used at any accredited college or university in the United States using the Arkansas higher-education tuition rates.

“All of you should now have no excuses not to go to college and not to finish college,” Beebe said to the students in the crowd Tuesday night. “There is a direct correlation between a college degree and the economic vitality of a community. You all are on your way. You should be very proud of one another, you should be very proud of Arkadelphia, and you should be very proud of these students. All of you deserve the recognition that everybody can give you. I’m proud of Arkadelphia, and I’m proud of Clark County.”

The program was developed by the Clark County Strategic Plan, a planning initiative designed to address the future development of the area in the next 10 years, and is sponsored by the Ross Foundation and Southern Bancorp, both based in Arkadelphia.

The program’s goal 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 work force,” according to the program’s website.

The Arkadelphia Promise is the fourth program of its kind in the nation and the second in Arkansas, with a similar program in El Dorado.

Wesley Kluck, co-chairman of the Clark County Strategic Plan, announced the new program Tuesday night to a stadium full of parents, teachers, students and staff; school board members; city and county elected officials; representatives of Henderson State University, Ouachita Baptist University and Dawson Education Co-op; and other community members and leaders.

“Tonight is truly a historic moment for our city,” said Kluck, who is also a graduate of Arkadelphia High School and a vice president of Ouachita Baptist University. “It is a moment that will impact the lives of our children and our grandchildren for many years to come. So all of us working together in a joint effort with commitment will have the opportunity to provide the total education needed for our youth to succeed, prosper and lead into the future years.”

Arkadelphia School District Superintendent Donnie Whitten, a member of the Arkadelphia Promise Foundation, served as the master of ceremonies. Additional speakers included Ross Whipple, chairman and trustee of the Ross Foundation; Phil Baldwin, president and CEO of Southern Bancorp; and Dr. Lewis Shepherd, co-chairman of the Clark County Strategic Plan, who led the Community Charge.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan addressed the crowd via a taped video message played during the event. He both congratulated the community and commended the Clark County Strategic Planning team.

“The Arkadelphia Promise Scholarship is not only a gift to be appreciated, but a responsibility to be fulfilled,” Duncan said. “With this program, your community is helping inspire an entire generation of young people to imagine a different future for themselves.”

The Arkadelphia Promise Scholarship is available to Arkadelphia High School graduates who are also Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship recipients and who plan to go to college immediately after graduation, according to the release.

Students in kindergarten through the 12th grade at Arkadelphia Public Schools as of Tuesday, Nov. 16, who graduate from Arkadelphia High School are eligible to receive 100 percent of the Arkadelphia Promise Scholarship, regardless of the date of original enrollment in the district. (For students who enroll in the district afterward, the scholarship amounts will be paid based on length of attendance in the district.)

“None of this would be possible without our great partners in education,” Whitten said during the event. “Southern Bancorp and the Ross Foundation have done so much for this community and for education and for economic development in Arkadelphia.”

Both Whipple and Baldwin challenged the students in the audience during their speeches.

“It is a challenge because this doesn’t come free; it doesn’t come easy,” Baldwin said. “You have to make a 2.5 grade-point average or score a 19 on the ACT, or nothing that we’re talking about here tonight will matter. And so my challenge to you is to do that — apply yourselves, realize that you can go to college, make those grades, do the best you can, work hard, obey your parents, do all the things that they say, and you are going to have the opportunity that very few people in this country will have.”

School district staff and teachers hope the program will reverse the enrollment trends at Arkadelphia High School. Enrollment at the district’s only high school has been declining for several years, according to statistics from the district.

The El Dorado School District has seen its enrollment steadily increase since the district’s promise project was instituted in 2007. The Arkadelphia scholarship is the 22nd promise-related program in the nation, according to an article in Wednesday’s Arkansas Democratic-Gazette.

For more information about the program, visit