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The Little Rock Promise

Little noticed, a scholarship program for LR students continues.

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The El Dorado Promise it ain't, but a similar, smaller program in the Little Rock School District has provided college scholarships to more than 100 minority students since its inception seven years ago as part of the district's desegregation settlement.

The Racially Identifiable Scholarship fund targets students who attended an elementary school with a minority enrollment of at least 90 percent — the definition of “racially identifiable” — for at least three years. If they graduate from high school, they're automatically eligible for a one-time scholarship. This year's maximum award is $2,575, and 56 students participated.

The program was first introduced as part of a desegregation lawsuit settlement in 1998, and became district policy the next year. It obligates the district to fund the program through 2013, when the students who were in kindergarten when the program started will graduate from high school.

The RIS program became the focus of attention again in December after Terence Bolden, a local education activist, suggested at the December school board meeting that the district wasn't fulfilling its obligations. Civil rights lawyer John Walker also raised questions about whether the district had delivered on the promise.

School board member Melanie Fox later asked district administrators to give a report on the program at the Jan. 24 meeting.

The district budgets $100,000 for the RIS fund every year, and as of Oct. 31, 2007, it had $866,269.

In the 2006-07 school year, 79 students were eligible for the scholarships, but only 38 received them. Fox said she's not sure if that's because only 38 of the 79 students went to college, or if some eligible students hadn't heard about the program. The year before, 101 students were eligible, and 43 students got scholarships.

Monica Watson, a counselor at Parkview High School, said eligible students are told when they start ninth grade that the scholarships will be available to them if they graduate.

The amount of the scholarship depends on how many students are eligible each year and how long each student attended a racially identifiable elementary school. Students who attended a qualifying school for six years get 100 percent of the scholarship amount; five years, 90 percent; four years, 80 percent; and three years, 70 percent.

The money can be used for tuition, books, room and board or other expenses at any two- or four-year college or technical school.

This year, 68 students were eligible for scholarships and 56 received them: 27 at Central, seven from Fair, 12 from Hall, seven from McClellan and three from Parkview. Participation rates were highest at Parkview (100 percent), Hall (92 percent) and Central (87 percent).

The students are using the scholarships at 19 colleges, mostly in state. The highest number, 10, are going to UALR, followed by the University of Central Arkansas (nine) and Arkansas State (seven).

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