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Wed Jun 24, 2009, 04:29 PM CDT

Arkadelphia, Ark. –

State lawmakers trickled one-by-one into Henderson State University Tuesday for a joint meeting of the Higher Education Subcommittee of the Arkansas Legislative Council and the Higher Education Subcommittee of the House Interim Committee on Education.

After a tour of the Arkadelphia College Preparatory Academy in Caplinger Airway Science Center, legislators were shuttled to Arkansas Hall for the committee meeting.

Henderson President Dr. Charles Welch spoke to the subcommittee first about challenges in higher education throughout the state, noting that one of the largest issues is recruiting first-generation college students. The “typical” Arkansan family, he said, is not parented by those who graduated from college and, therefore, their children feel as though they are not college material.

“That’s my family,” said Welch, who was a first-generation college student himself.

He also commented on retention rates. College dropout rates average between 49-52 percent statewide, he said. Almost 17 percent of Clark County residents have a college degree. “That might not sound like much, but when you compare that number” to other counties in the state, there are only two counties above the state average: Clark and Garland counties.

“We’ve got a real challenge in certain parts of the state,” he said, adding that the issues must be addressed or they will worsen.

The main challenge is “changing the cultural mindset” that many Arkansans share about college, he said. In order to do this, all it takes is to get one generation started. “Studies have shown that only one person is what it takes to get it started” with future generations, Welch said.

One issue with this is waiting until the freshman, sophomore, junior or senior year of high school before talking to them about the benefits of having a college education, he said. “We’ve got to get started earlier.”

The Arkadelphia College Preparatory Academy is one way of reaching out to high school students and giving them a slice of collegiate life, Welch told the legislators.

In April, Welch spoke to the entire ninth grade class of Arkadelphia Schools. He told them the academy would cost them two weeks and four Saturdays of their time now, but could allow them to have the rest of their Saturdays off work after they have a job that requires a college education. “We have the kids look at it as an investment.”

Arkadelphia Superintendent Donnie Whitten and Paulette Blacknall, director of the Southwest Arkansas Education Renewal Zone, then gave further detail about the prep academy.

Whitten said the district is “starting small” with the pilot program. He said he hopes to expand the program in the future.

The program came about when the district began “looking at needs for the high school,” adding that tests are not focused on enough in Arkansas.

Before entering high school, eighth graders took the Explore Test to determine whether or not they are college bound. A test similar to the ACT is also given to assess students’ skills in English, math and reading. Finally, the score from the Benchmark exam indicates if a student is “on target” to be successful in his or her education.

Of the 140 students who took the exams, 78 indicated they intended to attend a four-year university; but 31 of those did not meet Benchmark target scores in the all three fields on which they were tested.

State Rep. Steven Breedlove (D-Greenwood) asked Whitten if the academy is the only one of its type in the state. Whitten replied that it is, “but we don’t want this to be all about Arkadelphia after this meeting. We want it to be statewide.” Blacknall added that the district and Henderson are planning a roll-out program to include Gurdon and Centerpoint school districts next year.

Forty AHS students attend the academy.

Breedlove asked Whitten and Blacknall, “if you expanded, are you going to open it up to 40 (students) from each district, or will it be 40 total enrolled in the academy?” He said most of the students he talked to during the tour enjoyed the small classroom size. If the academy had 40 students from each district next year, he said, “The classroom size would explode.”

Blacknall said the plans for next year include expanding the academy to 48 students, with 24 from Arkadelphia Schools and 12 each from Gurdon and Centerpoint.

Blacknall then gave details about how the academy operates. There are four “modules” taught: math, English, reading and study skills/career exploration. Each class is co-taught by a licensed or public school teacher and a university professor. In order to be accepted, there are signed statements of commitment from the student, a parent and the academy. Students in the academy are also required to be on time and wear uniforms.

Each student is also given a handbook, which outlines rules on attendance, tardiness, unacceptable behavior, dress and identification. Blacknall said there has been one behavioral complaint so far, but the student is still enrolled, as a conference was held with his or her parents.

Each student is fed lunch and has the incentives like access to university plays, movies, athletic events, lectures and other resources on Henderson’s campus.

Blacknall also announced to legislators that the Clark County Strategic Plan is collaborating to bring the Arkadelphia Promise scholarship fund to the community.

Another legislator asked Whitten how many students enrolled in the academy have free or reduced lunch. Whitten said the number of those who have free or reduced lunch reflects the overall diversity of Arkadelphia Schools: between 40-45 percent. Whitten said the group is “very diverse” in race, gender and socioeconomic areas. The legislator also asked if the teachers and professors are compensated for their time. Whitten said they are paid through the grants which fund the academy: A $12,000 grant from Southern Bancorp and a $20,000 grant from the Ross Foundation. Next, Dr. Wesley Kluck, chair of the CCSP, gave legislators the history and accomplishments of the CCSP.

Mary Elizabeth Eldridge and Carrie Roberson spoke on behalf of the Ross Foundation and Southern Bancorp, respectively.

The committees reconvened after lunch to discuss an Interim Study Proposal on an act to create a loan program for out-of-state professional education and to provide forgiveness of loans for professionals who practice in Arkansas for no less than five years.

The committees also discussed issues related to education renewal zones and concurrent enrollment. Finally, Rep. Johnnie Roebuck gave an update on the final report of the Task Force on Higher Education Remediation, Retention and Graduation Rates.