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Boomtown once more 

El Dorado strikes gold with scholarship program.

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Claiborne Deming’s love of smart people just may save the town of El Dorado.

It’s not that straightforward, of course. But the Murphy Oil CEO’s desire to be surrounded by people capable of carrying on an interesting conversation — “It enhances your life,” he said — is at the root of his long-standing involvement in public education. And the most recent manifestation of that — his company’s decision to bankroll the $50 million El Dorado Promise scholarship program — could spark an economic upswing the town has needed for a long time.

“They’re not building any more oil refineries,” said Don Wales, president and CEO of the El Dorado Chamber of Commerce. “So we’ve got to do something else. … We’ve got to create more opportunities so these kids will come back home.”

The Promise, if you’ve somehow managed not to see any of the extensive local or national coverage about it, will pay all or part of college tuition costs for every El Dorado High School graduate who’s attended school in the district for at least four years. School officials and Deming announced it in January at an assembly at the school.

It’s modeled after a program in Kalamazoo, Mich., which sent its first paid-for grads to public colleges and universities in Michigan last fall and is already reaping benefits in the form of a huge influx of new students, rising property values and increased interest from new industries.

“What they experienced up there — property values went up, home construction increased and they got 3,000 new residents the first year — we full expect the same thing to happen here,” Wales said.

The web site for the El Dorado Chamber of Commerce is www.boomtown.org, but it’s been a long time since that description applied. The town was founded on agriculture and timber, but hit the big time in 1921 when the first oil well was drilled. The population exploded from under 4,000 in 1920 to 30,000 in 1925, and dozens of oil-related businesses sprang up.

The population dropped back to 16,000 by 1930, but rose steadily through 1960 and held at about 25,000 until it began to decline in the 1980s. The 2005 Census population was 20,437, down about 1,000 people from just five years before.

Oil has remained an important part of the town’s economy, along with agriculture, timber and other manufacturing industries — today, 29 percent of local jobs are in manufacturing, Wales said, more than twice the national average. But none of those are growing industries — Murphy Oil is a very profitable company, for instance, but only a small fraction of its 7,000-plus employees, all white-collar, are in El Dorado.

“We’ve moved away from oil as a big employer,” El Dorado schools Superintendent Bob Watson said. “As a result of that, the population dropped. It has impacted us economically. The loss of job opportunities — Cooper Tire is shutting down in the next few months, and another plant closed down recently. There goes your population.”

El Dorado’s main draw these days is its painstakingly restored downtown, which is filled with shops and restaurants and presents the illusion of a thriving, bustling community. But drive just a couple of blocks away and the scenery quickly deteriorates. Run-down buildings, many of them empty. Houses in bad need of maintenance. An abundance of sagging strip malls.

“Everybody talks about downtown El Dorado when they come,” Watson said. “But it takes more than just a good downtown.”

The school district’s fortunes have sagged with the town’s. It lost 151 students from last school year to this one, Superintendent Bob Watson said, continuing a long trend of yearly losses of between 55 and 100 students.

The district’s 4,400 students are poorer than those in adjacent school districts, and the minority population is significantly higher: 58 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, compared with 42 percent in nearby Norphlet and 23 percent in more affluent Parkers Chapel, both of which have fewer than 1,000 students. El Dorado is 55 percent black; Norphlet’s black population is 26 percent, and Parkers Chapel’s is 6 percent.

El Dorado High School’s students lag behind Parker’s Chapel’s in standardized test scores, but hold their own against Norphlet’s. Last year, 54 percent of El Dorado students who took the algebra end-of-course exam scored proficient or advanced, along with 68 percent of students who took the geometry exam and 38 percent who took the literacy exam.

But even as families have left the El Dorado School District, it’s never lost its most generous booster, Claiborne Deming.

Deming’s grandfather, Charles Murphy Sr., founded what would become Murphy Oil Corp. in the early part of the 20th century. His son, Charles Murphy Jr. — Deming’s uncle — took over the business at the age of 21. He never had the chance to go to college, but education was a major focus in his life; he spent 17 years on the state Board of Higher Education, a decade on the Hendrix College board of trustees, and established the Murphy Institute of Political Economy at Tulane University.

Deming grew up in Louisiana and joined the family business in 1979 after getting a law degree from Tulane University. He took over as CEO in 1994, and has since turned what was a struggling company into one of the fastest-growing oil producers in the country. Forbes magazine named him one of the country’s best bosses in 2002, citing among other factors his relatively paltry salary ($1.2 million that year, “a rounding error for chief execs these days,” according to the magazine).

Deming and his wife, Elaine, raised their four children in El Dorado; all attended public schools through the eighth grade before moving on to the exclusive Groton School in Massachusetts.

As a public school parent a decade ago, Deming co-founded the El Dorado Education Foundation, which has put a total of $12 million into district schools. It provides grants for teachers who want to try innovative new programs, has endowed chairs for departments like math, science and foreign language, and funds math camps for black students in the summer, said Alice Mahony, the foundation’s vice president and co-founder with Deming.

“There’s a 100 percent college-bound rate for those kids,” she said.

Deming has also influenced local education through the Murphy Education Program, a separate effort that he began to provide money for students to take Advanced Placement exams. The number of students enrolled in AP classes has skyrocketed in the nine years since the program’s start, Mahony said. The Murphy program also gives students money for high scores on the SAT, the state Benchmark exams, and for being named National Merit semifinalists.

“The wonderful thing about Claiborne is he brings in such strong leadership skills,” Mahony said.

Deming hasn’t limited his involvement to local education programs. He’s served on the state Board of Education, and was a founder with other wealthy, conservative businessmen (Walter Hussman, Jim Walton, Jackson T. Stephens Jr.) of Arkansans for Education Reform, which advocates for merit pay, charter schools and other pet ideas of conservatives.

But his personal philosophy is much more broad-minded.

“One thing we’ve learned over time is there is no silver-bullet approach,” he said. “You have to try different things. It’s like a business — even when you get it right it doesn’t last, because outside conditions change.

“… I don’t know what works,” he said. “Anyone who climbs up on their high horse and says they do, I listen politely, but. …”

And his motivation?

“I love to talk to and be around well-educated people,” Deming said. “I love it when I come across people who are well-rounded. You have so much to talk about.”

The most bustling centers of intellectual activity are cities with major universities, he said — something El Dorado won’t ever have. “But we can recreate some of that, and have not only the benefits of well-educated people around you, but also the benefit of what they create.”

The El Dorado Promise wasn’t Deming’s idea: It originated at a meeting in early 2006 of the local industrial development corporation. Robert Reynolds, owner of oil and gas company Shuler Drilling, brought in an article he’d seen in the Wall Street Journal about the Kalamazoo Promise.

“I thought there were a number of parallels between Kalamazoo and El Dorado,” he said. “They both had their heyday a long time ago and were on a slow decline, but because of some forward-thinking people had a chance” to turn their fortunes around.

Local businessmen Knox White and Steve Cameron jumped on the idea, got in touch with officials in Kalamazoo, and eventually decided that Murphy Oil was the most logical place to look for funding.

The El Dorado Promise, Deming said, was a no-brainer.

“It was a way we could get the most bang for the buck in terms of a gift,” he said. “If we could encourage more kids to go to college — how fabulous. It’s almost, why wouldn’t you do it?”

The $50 million gift is coming from Murphy Oil Corp. in $5 million increments over the next 10 years. It’ll be enough to fund the Promise for 20 years; after that, community leaders hope, other donors will step up.

The key innovation of the El Dorado Promise is that it provides financial help to all students, regardless of merit or need. Students who have attended public school in the district from kindergarten through 12th grade can get tuition and fees paid for at any college in the country, public or private, up to the highest amount charged by any public university in Arkansas — currently, about $6,000 per year. Students who’ve been in the district a shorter time can receive a pro-rated amount of aid, but must have been in El Dorado schools at least since the ninth grade to be eligible.

Students who choose to go to Henderson State University get an even better deal: that school has said it will match the El Dorado Promise, so that students won’t have to pay for room, board, books and other expenses that the Promise doesn’t cover.

District officials hope that the Promise will attract new families into the city’s public schools — both from surrounding districts and from elsewhere in the state and the country. Kalamazoo’s new families came from all over Michigan and the U.S., and included a lot of professionals whose jobs allowed them to work from home.

The district has also been talking with neighboring Norphlet schools about consolidating — the district has just 556 students, and is just five miles from El Dorado — but so far Norphlet officials haven’t voted on the issue.

With over 4,400 students, El Dorado isn’t in any danger of being forced to consolidate, and it’s large enough to offer a wide variety of classes in the high school. But that variety has been diminishing in recent years, Watson said, as the district has lost students: Some AP and vocational classes have been dropped.

“We’re trying to have a system large enough to offer the classes students need for college,” he said. “It’s difficult to do that in a small environment.”

Watson said he’d love to see 75 to 100 new students in the district next year, and add between 400 and 500 over the next five years. There’s room in elementary and middle schools, he said, and the district is hoping to build a new high school in three or four years that could handle a larger student body.

“A space issue would be a good problem to have,” he said.

About 65 percent of El Dorado High School graduates go on to college or technical school, Superintendent Watson said, but there are plenty of others who could handle college work and would benefit from the education.

Many of them come from families who earn too much money to qualify for need-based aid, but not enough to comfortably pay for college. And while their grades may be good enough to gain admission to college, they’re not high enough to earn merit scholarships.

“We’ve had a number of those students come in” to talk about the Promise, said Vince Dawson, a counselor at El Dorado High. “They’re the ones who are really excited. Not the straight-A students — the good, average 2.5 GPA child who wants some kind of education after high school, and they just fall through the cracks.”

Watson said he hopes to see the college-bound rate jump to 85 percent in the future. And one of the side effects of that, he and other district educators say, should be an increase in the number of students who take their academic work more seriously.

“I would have worked very much harder,” said senior Xavier King, who is now planning to pursue a two-year degree in business management after high school instead of a full-time job at a local plant. “I just really did enough to get out of high school. I probably would have made A’s and B’s.”

College wasn’t in his plans, he said, “Because I knew financially I wasn’t going to make it.” He said he’ll be the first of his siblings to go to college, and he hopes to get into real estate.

Senior Katie Carroll has also changed her post-graduation plans. She comes from a large family, and didn’t think they’d be able to afford to send her to college. Now, she said, she’s planning to go to either the University of Central Arkansas or Southern Arkansas University, and major in occupational therapy or nursing.

“I think it’s a lot of stress off people,” she said.

About 125 seniors have turned in applications for the Promise so far, said Jim Fouce, a former deputy superintendent in El Dorado who’s now the administrator of the program. He’s expecting more, but doesn’t think the number will get above 200 this year (El Dorado High usually has about 300 in its senior class).

“It’ll be the juniors, sophomores and the classes to come along where you’ll see a big increase,” he said. “Many of these [seniors] hadn’t really given college a thought. … Preparing to go to college isn’t packing the week before you leave — it starts shortly after you’re born.”

El Dorado High School Principal Larry Walters said he’s expecting an academic boom not just from current students choosing to work harder, but from the types of students whose families will be attracted to El Dorado because of the prospect of free college tuition.

“The students who move in will want to pursue higher education, so we’ll automatically have a clientele that wants to learn,” he said. “I think we’ll see a higher standard academically for both students and teachers.”

As for a wider economic revival, city business leaders are hopeful, but they aren’t counting on it. Realtors are reporting an increase in inquiries about homes within the school district’s boundaries, but there’s been no immediate rush of calls from businesses interested in setting up shop in El Dorado.

“It has happened in Kalamazoo, but it’s early,” Deming said. “It’s not an expectation, but it could be a catalyst — it could generate people coming to town. All it may spark is letting these kids go to college. But it makes it easier for Murphy Oil Corporation to recruit people to El Dorado.”

With an economy so reliant on manufacturing, El Dorado has been hurt by companies moving their operations to cheaper plants overseas. The Cooper Tire plant has announced it will close soon, and other plants have shut down in recent years. The Chamber of Commerce’s Wales said he hopes the Promise will attract new residents who’ll want to open their own businesses rather than count on finding employment locally.

The signs are promising in Kalamazoo. City boosters there had hoped the lure of free college educations would draw maybe a hundred new families to the district, which, like El Dorado, had been steadily losing students for years. They ended up with almost 1,000 additional students when the doors opened last August — which brought in an additional $7.5 million in state education funding — and got 2,000 applications for the 45 additional teaching positions they created to handle the influx. Most of the increase in students was from families who moved into the city, but part of it was due to a decline in the number of students who dropped out of high school, said Bob Jorth, executive director of the Kalamazoo Promise. A recent survey of new families found that half of them said the Promise had something to do with their decision to move to the city.

Kalamazoo is considerably larger than El Dorado — its population is about 72,000 and the school district serves about 10,500 — but the two towns have a lot in common. Both were built on industries that have been waning for years; both have been losing population for a long time, to adjacent suburbs and to other areas where the economy is more vibrant. Kalamazoo had been losing 700 students per year before instituting the Kalamazoo Promise.

“It’s just been a little over a year, so it’s kind of hard to tell” what economic impact the Kalamazoo Promise will have, said Jerome Kisscorni, that city’s economic development director. The city promotes the Promise in the proposals it sends to businesses, and it’s generated questions and inquiries, he said.

It’s also buoyed the local housing market. “The last I heard, we had families from 15 or 20 different states that have moved into the area to take advantage of the Promise,” he said. “We’re seeing that the housing bust really hasn’t happened within our corporate city limits.”

There are, of course, obstacles to the kind of economic growth El Dorado’s business and education community are hoping to see.

A major one, said school board member Teresa Swint, is housing.

There is plenty of available real estate in the city, but most if it is at either the low end or the high end of the price scale.

“We’ve got lots of property, but it’s $50,000 to $100,000 lots, and people build half-million-dollar houses on them,” she said. “That’s not something most people can easily afford. If you want to build a home in the $150,000 range, there’s not anywhere to do that.”

As for existing homes, she said, there are a lot of fixer-uppers, but not many well-maintained houses in the middle-income range.

“To me, that’s where we’re going to attract people — young couples and families with kids in school,” she said. “Expensive houses are usually bought by older people whose kids are grown.”

The other problem, she said, is that some people who live in smaller communities around El Dorado — who could easily move into the city limits — perceive the “big” high school as unsafe and undesirable.

“People talk about the size of our school and the diversity,” she said. “People think we have a discipline problem.” One parent was quoted in the local paper saying he’d rather spend $40,000 a year to send his daughter to college rather than send her to El Dorado High School to be gang-raped, Swint said.

“Look around,” she said, sitting in the middle of the school’s packed cafeteria at lunch-time. “These are just normal kids.”

Swint, who grew up in Norphlet, said she had the same reservations when she first moved to El Dorado and put her kids in public elementary schools there years ago. But she’s come to appreciate the benefits of attending a larger high school.

“One of the advantages of bigger schools is there’s a lot of cliques, and you’re going to fit in one of them,” she said — in contrast to very small high schools, where you’re either in or you’re out.

While adults worry about the larger issues of economic development and student enrollment numbers, the students at El Dorado High are just enjoying the moment. The school itself is organized around a series of open courtyards, so there’s plenty of space to gather and talk — and lately, the Promise has been a major topic of conversation. Xavier King was even interviewed by a reporter from Time magazine.

“Everybody’s just been happy,” King said of his fellow students. “Everybody’s speaking to everybody.”

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