A school auditorium
Photography by Janet Warlick
Going Away, Coming Home
No one involved with the El Dorado Promise seems to be under the illusion that every single kid who uses it will eventually return home. But it is important for at least some of those students who get a higher education thanks to the scholarship to come back and live and work. “We’re just now getting to the point where we’ll see that,” Reibe says. “That is what I think the Promise was created for: to give our kids that opportunity and for them to come back and share.”

A glimpse of what that will mean to El Dorado is visible in a second-floor classroom in the high school. That’s where first-year teacher Clair Barnhouse guides a group of 14-year-olds enrolled in the school’s New Tech program, which emphasizes rigorous content and important life skills under the context of technology and self-guided, project-­based learning instead of a traditional lecture format. Barnhouse was a sophomore on that January day when students were gathered into the old high school gymnasium and told about the Promise scholarship. Despite being an academic high-achiever and heavily involved with extracurricular activities, Barnhouse was uncertain about how she would ever pay for college. The availability of the Promise erased those concerns and allowed her to graduate summa cum laude from Arkansas Tech in 2013.

NOW YOU KNOW: Former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have addressed students at El Dorado High School about the benefits of education.

And now Barnhouse — who, with her bright smile and unabashed enthusiasm, acts the part of an eager first-year teacher — is back, helping prep kids for their own journey. Appropriately enough, the project Barnhouse’s kids have been tasked with is researching a need in the community and designing a charity to meet that need. “I think this project we are doing is useful, because some kids say, ‘I think El Dorado is great,’ ” she says. “And other kids say, ‘We can make it better this way or that way.’ Hopefully by getting them invested in the community, it will make them want to come back.”

Barnhouse certainly doesn’t have any regrets about what she’s doing and where. She loves her job. She and her husband were able to buy a home. She gets to see her parents and give them a helping hand during the holiday rush at the downtown jewelry store they own. Thanks to the Promise, her younger brother is studying at the community­ college in El Dorado, and she can help him edit his papers. “The other day, I was driving home, and I thought to myself, ‘I am living the American Dream.’ ” 

As the father of two young, eventually college-bound children, American Way contributor CHRIS WARREN is quite jealous of parents in El Dorado. He’s also glad he was able to pay off his college loans before his 20th reunion.