The El Dorado High School entrance
Photography by Janet Warlick

For many El Dorado, Ark., high school students, college used to be out of reach. But thanks to the EL DORADO PROMISE SCHOLARSHIP, higher education is more than a possibility.

First-time visitors to El Dorado High School in southern Arkansas could be excused for imagining that they had somehow made a very wrong turn. Sure, there are plenty of visual reminders that one has entered a modern-day American high school. When a bell rings signaling the time to change classes, a swarm of students dressed in the school’s colors (purple and white) instantly fills the hallways; it’s a fall Friday in this football-crazed part of the country, and kids and teachers alike are serious about supporting their Wildcats. As students make their way toward their next class, there’s all the horseplay, joshing and posturing one would expect in a building holding such a high concentration of hormone-drenched teens.

But as students disappear into classrooms, it becomes clear that this 1,300-student high school is impersonating a college campus. For one thing, the school has a high-ceilinged commons area bathed in natural light that resembles the student centers that anchor most university campuses. Far from cramped and dark, the hallways are so wide and light-filled that they create the feeling of walking between separate buildings during class changeovers. With its huge stage and a pit for an orchestra, the school’s theater would be the envy of any college.

None of these details was incorporated by chance into this relatively new complex, which opened in 2011. “We tried to get as close to a college environment as we could,” says Bob Watson, the superintendent of the El Dorado School District. But what’s so intriguing about the deliberate college-oriented design of El Dorado High School is that it’s not strictly a way to reinforce the idea that the student body should strive for college. No, the high school in this economically challenged, rural Southern town of around 19,000 is designed the way it is because every single student who graduates knows he or she actually can go to college, and this is a way to get them ready.

College is a reality for these students — over half of whom are from sufficiently low-income families that they qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches — thanks to a scholarship program known as the El Dorado Promise. Launched in 2007 with a $50 million commitment from El Dorado-based ­Murphy Oil Corp., the scholarship program covers the tuition and mandatory fees of students pursuing a bachelor’s or associate’s degree at any accredited two- or four-year college or university in the country. There are a few limitations. Only kids who have been enrolled from kindergarten through high school graduation get 100 percent of their tuition and fees covered, and students must have been enrolled for the entirety of high school to be eligible. Students who enroll after kindergarten receive a portion of the Promise relative to their enrollment year. The scholarship is also capped at an amount equal to the highest in-state tuition at an Arkansas public university during any particular year. Still, those caveats aside, the Promise scholarship has been transformational. Since its launch, the scholarship — which is not based on need or GPA — has funded more than 1,400 students. Overall, the number of kids going to college from El Dorado has risen from around 55 percent to nearly 90 percent. Test scores are on the upswing. And in an area of the U.S. where most school districts see decreasing enrollment, El Dorado’s school enrollment has stabilized.

But statistics tell only part of the story. There’s a changed attitude among the area’s citizens about the possibilities and importance of higher education. After it failed three times in the past, El Dorado citizens voted overwhelmingly to support a tax increase to build the new high school once the scholarship was announced. Perhaps more important, the understanding that finances won’t stand in the way of attending college has changed students’ attitudes. “Some people might have been like, ‘I might go to college or I might work,’ ” says Bradley­ Smith, a senior who has been accepted by and plans to attend the University of Arkansas. “But ever since the Promise, everybody feels like they have to go to college.”