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Committed to achievement 

Nonprofit puts young black scholars on path to college and success.

click to enlarge NEW COLLEGE GOALS: Thanks to Arkansas Commitment, Chase Swinton (left) and Carré Sadler have their sights on elite colleges.
  • NEW COLLEGE GOALS: Thanks to Arkansas Commitment, Chase Swinton (left) and Carré Sadler have their sights on elite colleges.

Carré Sadler remembers hearing about college in the first grade. The message: It was attainable. "I've always worked toward that goal," said Carré, who describes herself as an "ambitious" student and who just completed her junior year at North Little Rock High School.

Her mother, Carlotta Sadler, said she also always saw college in her daughter's future, but did not think the family could afford to send her anywhere but a two-year college.

But in the ninth grade, Carré was admitted into Arkansas Commitment, a Little Rock-based nonprofit program created in 1999 that works to match high-achieving minority kids in Central Arkansas with colleges that meet their academic criteria. The program, which is free to students, teaches them interview skills, provides them with intensive ACT prep, connects them to elite colleges across the country and helps them navigate the financial aid landscape. After several years in the program, Carré's top college choice is the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school. "Before Arkansas Commitment, we would've been like, "That's a reach," Carlotta Sadler said. "But now, it doesn't seem like much of one."

Arkansas Commitment provides a questionnaire to selected students when they enter the program in ninth grade. About 50 percent say they don't have any idea what colleges are looking for and don't think college is attainable. Thirty-five percent say they can't afford it. By the end of the program, those numbers drop close to zero.

"Especially low-income, first-generation students and undocumented students, a lot of them just feel discouraged when they see the price tag of some of these schools. Like, '$70,000 — there's no way my parents can do that,' " Arkansas Commitment Executive Director Darren Morgan said. But many school scholarships are need-based. "We teach them, if you follow these guidelines, not only will you get into college, you can get it paid for." If Morgan can successfully communicate that attending an elite college is attainable to students in the ninth or 10th grade, "they're more intentional in their studies, in what classes they select, more focused throughout the day in terms of getting that A, or taking that AP course or opting for that harder course," he said.

Morgan, 32, knows the arcane and often biased world of college recruitment well. He graduated from public high school in Atlanta, attended Davidson College in North Carolina and, after working as a banker for a time, returned to Davidson as an admissions counselor, eventually working his way up to assistant dean.

"What used to frustrate me is that we talk a lot about recruitment and diversity and getting good kids on campus, but we only talk to students in their 12th grade year. At that point, when they're applying to these highly selective schools, like Yale or Vanderbilt, it's too late to get them to change anything about their application," Morgan said.

He also pointed to a recent study by researchers at UCLA and the University of Arizona that found that colleges tend to visit richer, whiter high schools on recruiting trips. That study reflected his experience at Davidson. When he visited Little Rock on behalf of the college, he would go schools like Pulaski Academy and Little Rock Christian. "So we're only getting the kids who're intent on getting out of state, whose parents did that. We had our marching orders. We had to get those kids. But that leaves out a lot of really smart kids."

***

Longtime Little Rock City Director Dean Kumpuris started Arkansas Commitment as a way to help promising black students in Central Arkansas reach their highest potential. The idea was "to promote the best and brightest kids and get them to return [to Arkansas] to be tomorrow's leaders," Kumpuris said. Since the program's founding, about 760 kids have passed through it, Morgan estimated. Since 2010, when the nonprofit began actively tracking its success, 320 students have graduated from the program. All of them went on to enroll in four-year colleges and earned a cumulative $29 million in scholarships. This year's Arkansas Commitment senior class of 30 students was offered $9.6 million in first-year scholarships by 48 colleges. They will enroll in 17 colleges and accept $3.24 million of those scholarship offers.

Kumpuris modeled the program on the Memphis Challenge, a college prep nonprofit for black students started by Pitt Hyde, the founder of AutoZone, and recruited Tom Eppley, director of the Memphis program, to start Arkansas Commitment.

Eppley, Kumpuris, activist and philanthropist Clarice Miller and City Manager Bruce Moore were met with skepticism when they convened a group of local high school counselors and families to pitch the program. Kumpuris recalls a grandmother coming up to him after the presentation and saying, "I don't get it. What's the catch? What do you want? Why are you doing this? No one ever offers something to us."

The catch — or at least Kumpuris' initial hope — was that Arkansas Commitment students would bring their degrees back to Central Arkansas. One of the most prominent alums, Charles Blake, who was just elected to a third term in the state House of Representatives, internalized that while going through the program in its early years. "It's there in the name, 'Arkansas Commitment.' You make a commitment to bring your skills back to Arkansas and provide a return on investment."

click to enlarge STARTED ARKANSAS COMMITMENT: Among all that he's done over the years, Little Rock City Director Dean Kumpuris says he's most proud of his work with the nonprofit.
  • STARTED ARKANSAS COMMITMENT: Among all that he's done over the years, Little Rock City Director Dean Kumpuris says he's most proud of his work with the nonprofit.

Thanks to exposure through Arkansas Commitment, the Central High graduate attended Grinnell College, a prestigious liberal arts college in Grinnell, Iowa. The campus had more Africans than African Americans, Blake said. "It prided itself on having students from all 50 states and 51 different countries," he said. "That's the first time I'd seen that kind of diversity."

Through Arkansas Commitment, he got an internship at Regions Bank under the regional CEO, Jack Fleischauer, for three summers during college. A month before graduation, Fleischauer offered him a job. He started a week after graduation. Blake spent almost a decade at Regions. He now owns a nonemergency medical transport business.

Blake credits Arkansas Commitment and his Regions internship with positioning him to be successful. He says Kumpuris doesn't get enough credit. "He's been the steam in this engine," Blake said. "[Former state Rep. and Southern Bancorp CEO] Darrin Williams says, 'I can tell what your priorities are by looking at your checkbook.' " The financial investment, sweat and energy Kumpuris has put into the program "speaks volumes," Blake said.

"A diverse economy is an economy that's going to grow," Blake said. "We have to make sure we're building up our African-American and Hispanic communities. It has to be intentional. It takes a commitment."

click to enlarge FROM ARKANSAS COMMITMENT TO THE ARKANSAS HOUSE: State Rep. Charles Blake (D-Little Rock) attended Grinnell College in Iowa, where he said he experienced diversity like he never had before.
  • FROM ARKANSAS COMMITMENT TO THE ARKANSAS HOUSE: State Rep. Charles Blake (D-Little Rock) attended Grinnell College in Iowa, where he said he experienced diversity like he never had before.

Arkansas Commitment had $184,668 in revenue and $178,157 in expenses in 2015, according to its 2016 990 tax form, the most recent available. Its board is a who's who of Little Rock power brokers: Kumpuris, Moore, Warren Stephens, Khayyam Eddings, Jerry Adams, Eddie Drilling, Susie Smith and Bill Paschall. The board and the Little Rock business community have always almost entirely paid for the program, Kumpuris said.

But Kumpuris acknowledges that it was a bit "Pollyanna-ish" of him to expect that all, or even most, of the students who passed through Arkansas Commitment would return to the state.

Like Parkview grad Earnest Sweat. Sweat, an alumnus of Arkansas Commitment in its early years, went on to Columbia University in New York for a B.A., and to Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, Ill., for an M.B.A. He started his career in investment banking and is now a start-up investor and adviser and corporate venture capitalist in San Francisco.

"I didn't know what investment banking was while I was in Arkansas," Sweat said. "I didn't know what a venture capitalist was in college."

Sweat, 33, credits Arkansas Commitment for putting him on the path to success.

"It was great to find that community of other black and brown folks who were doing exceptional things. I'm a true believer that iron sharpens iron. Being around people who had ambitions that were similar or even greater than mine pushed me and gave me the confidence to push myself when it came to thinking about college and where to go."

But come back to Little Rock? Unlikely, Sweat said, though he said he would love to invest in an Arkansas start-up.

***

Antwan Phillips, 33, is a Little Rock politico, activist and partner at the Wright Lindsey Jennings law firm whose specialties include personal injury defense and trucking litigation. (He also hosts a podcast, "Rock the Culture," which the Arkansas Times distributes, and contributes guest columns. He's close friends with Blake, who regularly co-hosts the podcast.) Phillips is the poster child for Arkansas Commitment, Kumpuris said.

Phillips, who believes there's a Jay-Z quote for every occasion, pulled one from the rapper's obscure 2010 song "Most Kingz" when talking about how far he's traveled since childhood: "Everybody look at you strange, say you changed/Like you work that hard to stay the same."

"In 2002, if you'd have asked me to pull out my cell phone and call someone who was not black, I couldn't have done it," Phillips said. Aside from a trip once to Dallas and a brief time living in North Little Rock, "I didn't know the world outside of Southwest Little Rock," he said.

His family had "limited means" growing up and his father was absent. His mother stressed academic achievement. When he was in seventh grade, he was preparing for his spring formal dance. His mom had taken him to buy some new pants. Then his report card came. He had a 3.6 grade point average. His mom told him he couldn't go to the dance. He'd had a 3.8 the nine weeks before, and his mom wouldn't abide by his grades slipping. "I was so upset with her," Phillips said. "I remember very vividly going to my room and sitting on my bed and saying, 'I wish she was dead. Like, how stupid is this woman that I've got a 3.6 and she's not letting me go to the dance?' " The memory sticks with him because, unbeknownst to him at the time, his mom had cancer. She died later that year.

click to enlarge 'NOT WHO I AM WITHOUT ARKANSAS COMMITMENT': Lawyer Antwan Phillips credits the program for changing the trajectory of his life. So does his younger sister, Jasmine Phillips, a college counselor at Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts in Hot Springs.
  • 'NOT WHO I AM WITHOUT ARKANSAS COMMITMENT': Lawyer Antwan Phillips credits the program for changing the trajectory of his life. So does his younger sister, Jasmine Phillips, a college counselor at Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts in Hot Springs.

His mother's insistence on high achievement drove him, Phillips said. "[Education] was important to me because it was important to her. I think she knew, for my life to be different, that education was going to be the avenue."

Phillips excelled at Little Rock McClellan High School and played on the school's basketball team. His goal was to go to Florida State University in Tallahassee and play basketball. "I thought I was good enough to play basketball there because their basketball team wasn't that good," he said, laughing. But then a friend, Tiffany Gunn, who was a senior when Phillips was a junior, told him about Arkansas Commitment. (Gunn, now Tiffany Frazier, was also an Arkansas Commitment student. She went to the University of Notre Dame, where she had an outstanding track career, and then earned an M.B.A. and a law degree. She is now director of product safety and compliance at Walmart.) Phillips asked for an introduction to Eppley, who was leading Arkansas Commitment at the time, and talked his way into the program.

The experience broadened his sense of what was possible and gave him a new set of peers.

"Once you get involved in Arkansas Commitment, you get involved with a bunch of other kids who are excelling. There were a handful of us in AP classes at McClellan. Now, there are 25 people who look like me and like doing well at school," he said.

He got exposed to colleges he had never heard of and warmed to "the value of having a different experience than the one I grew up knowing." No one in his immediate or extended family had graduated from college.

In high school, he made a to-do list that included, among other things, to become the state's first black governor and to visit all 50 states. So when Bowdoin College, a well-regarded small liberal arts college in Brunswick, Maine, offered to fly him in for a visit, he figured at least he'd get to check a far-off state from his list. But he fell hard for the college and, despite some trepidation that it was going to turn him into Carlton from "The Fresh Prince of Bel Air," when Bowdoin offered him a full scholarship that also included money to travel to and from Little Rock, he accepted.

He had a white roommate, with whom he grew close. He learned to "navigate different situations and environments" that were foreign to his childhood. When he returned for the summer, he got an internship at Metropolitan National Bank through Arkansas Commitment. Because of his time at Bowdoin, he was comfortable with people who didn't look like him. He met and worked with local banking luminaries Virgil Miller, Susie Smith and Lunsford Bridges. He interned with U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor and in the city manager's office with Moore. "It's not weird. I'm not shell-shocked," he remembered feeling during those internships. "I'm not like, 'Oh, I can't be me.' ... I don't think I'm able to do that if I go to a different school."

Phillips says going to Bowdoin was the third best decision he's made in his life, behind his faith and deciding to ask his wife to marry him. "I'm not who I am without going to Bowdoin, and I'm not who I am without Arkansas Commitment," he said.

Phillips' maternal grandmother had 13 children, all of whom had at least four children. Phillips was the second person in the family to graduate from college — and only second because a cousin graduated a few weeks earlier.

His sister, Jasmine Phillips, was third. Seven years younger, she, too, passed through Arkansas Commitment, an experience she describes as "important in trying to change the trajectory" in her life. She also went to school in Maine, to Colby College, a small, highly regarded liberal arts school in Waterville. From there, she got a master's degree in education from Penn. She's a college consultant* at the Arkansas School for Mathematics, Sciences and the Arts in Hot Springs, where she provides a similar service as Arkansas Commitment. A nephew, 13, will soon be old enough to enter Arkansas Commitment. She hopes he gets accepted, but regardless, she has the skills to help him position himself to be admitted to an elite college.

***

Director Morgan is in his second year leading Arkansas Commitment. The core of the program involves around 120 kids, 40 in grades 9-12. Kids apply in the ninth grade and Morgan considers their GPA, how many AP classes they've taken and a 300-character statement ("That's not a big deal; they text longer than that," Morgan said with a laugh). Students in the program come from 14 different schools, mostly in Central Arkansas, though that's not a requirement (one student attends ASMSA). All the students are minorities and most are black, though Morgan said that was not a requirement. Students participate in a seven-week ACT prep class and have access to tutoring. During spring break of their junior year, they visit a series of colleges. This year, the group toured schools in Tennessee: Rhodes College in Memphis; Fisk and Vanderbilt universities in Nashville; and The University of the South in Sewanee. "That's something a lot of kids don't get to do," Carlotta Sadler said. Her daughter Carré was on the Tennessee trip this year. "A lot of kids just make decisions based on what's on a piece of paper. [Getting to take this trip] was almost a game changer."

click to enlarge BRINGS INSIGHT: Darren Morgan, Arkansas Commitment's executive director, previously served as an assistant dean of admissions at Davidson College.
  • BRINGS INSIGHT: Darren Morgan, Arkansas Commitment's executive director, previously served as an assistant dean of admissions at Davidson College.

Arkansas Commitment has official partnerships with six universities, who pay an annual fee to support the program: Hendrix College, Sewanee, Vanderbilt, Washington University in St. Louis, Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colo., and Washington & Lee University in Lexington, Va. All those schools and other unofficial partners — including Yale; Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.; Grinnell; Amherst College in Amherst, Mass.; and Williams in Williamstown, Mass. — agree to fly Arkansas Commitment students in for all-expenses-paid visits.

Arkansas Commitment students also participate in local service projects, with partners such as the Arkansas Food Bank and the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, and have the opportunity to participate in summer programs.

Chase Swinton, who just completed her junior year at Sylvan Hills High School in Sherwood, got to participate in a five-week biology program at Washington University. "It was a really eye-opening experience, being five and a half hours away from home by myself, taking college credit classes in a subject I want to major in. I was the only African American and the only female in the class," Chase said. She said she'd expected that being in the extreme minority was something she would encounter on her planned path to becoming a neurologist or research physician, but that experiencing it was useful. Five Arkansas Commitment students participate in the Washington University program each year.

Chase will participate this summer in another program affiliated with Arkansas Commitment: a science/medical research internship at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. UAMS provides opportunities for as many as 10 Arkansas Commitment students.

Both Morgan and Kumpuris say they'd like to expand the core program. In the meantime, Morgan is working to broaden Arkansas Commitment's reach. To raise the college matriculation rate throughout Central Arkansas, he's partnered with North Little Rock High School, eSTEM Charter High School, Central High School and Hall High School to offer five-part admissions workshops, teaching kids what colleges are looking for, how to make their applications stand out and how to write a perfect admissions essay. Those programs reach about 660 kids.

In the past, Arkansas Commitment hosted private college fairs. Now, Morgan makes sure to open fairs to all students. Last week, he worked with North Little Rock High School to host a free financial aid workshop with representatives from Pomona and Yale.

Arkansas Commitment celebrates its graduates every year with "The Bow Tie Bash" (a nod to Kumpuris, who is known for wearing bow ties). This year's event will be held 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 6, at the Clinton Presidential Center. Tickets are $100 ($50 for alumni). Morgan also said there's a pay-what-you-can option for people who can't afford fundraiser prices.

At the event, one is sure to find parents like Carlotta Sadler singing the program's praises. "Every time I see someone, I say, 'You need to get your child in Arkansas Commitment!' "

*A previous version of this story incorrectly described Jasmine Phillps as a college counselor at ASMSA.
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