12-09-2016  5:31 am      •     

SPARKMAN, Ark. (AP) -- The signs of decline are everywhere in this tiny timber town. Most of the gas stations are abandoned metal skeletons left to rust under the Arkansas sun. Empty storefronts and vacant lots mark the graves of other long-gone businesses.

Sparkman has been dying for decades, losing more than half of its population since 1950. It has virtually no jobs. And its lone school is on the brink of closing. Now the community is trying to save itself by tapping into the economic-development potential of its most precious resource: its children.

Parents and teachers have launched a scholarship program that goes beyond offering money for college. It also aims to draw new families to town to keep the school system alive - and with it the once-thriving village 90 miles southwest of Little Rock.

"We know there's not much here to bring people into our town," said fourth-grade teacher Stephanie Harmon. "We just want to keep our school so that our town can stay."

The idea is not entirely new. Other districts have waged similar campaigns to stir interest in their schools. But Sparkman's efforts and those of other Arkansas towns have taken the practice to a new level, with communities practically competing for each other's children and the state revenue that comes with them.

When nearby Arkadelphia announced plans last fall to help its high school graduates pay for college, the news reawakened fears in Sparkman that surrounding towns would steal students away, perhaps forcing the school to close and dealing the town a final, fatal blow.

"We've already lost so many kids to other schools," Harmon said. "This was going to be the straw that broke the camel's back."

So Sparkman residents passed around the collection plate and scraped together thousands of dollars to counter Arkadelphia's millions and launch scholarships of their own.

With their first scholarship recipients preparing to leave for college, both communities are writing checks - and praying that the kids return with degrees, but not requiring them to.

Arkadelphia, a growing town of 11,000, wants to use the scholarships to attract even more people. Sparkman would settle for keeping its population stable at slightly above 400.

Since its early years, the United States has had a long history of offering incentives to people willing to settle in specific places. One of the most notable examples was the Homestead Act of 1862, which offered vast amounts of cheap public land to families who would improve it.

In Sparkman, prospects weren't always so dim. The town boasted nearly 1,000 people in its heyday in 1950. You could buy clothes, a car or a ticket to watch a Western at the movie theater. Sawmill jobs were as plentiful as the trees that fed the lumber industry.

Then more and more people abandoned rural life for larger cities, leaving crumbled buildings behind like cicada shells stuck on a screen door. Now the town has been reduced to a sit-down restaurant, a small grocery store, a handful of churches and the school.

Surrounded by forests, the town's lone industry is still timber, and the air smells like Christmas year-round as trucks piled high with tree trunks rumble down two-lane highways.

Of the 13 high school seniors who graduated from Sparkman this past spring, only eight pledged go to college. Kathryne Bosley was one of them. She says her father, who works at one of the three sawmills, wants her to get out.

"He doesn't want me living like the rest of everybody else, living from day to day," Bosley said. "He wants me to have something."

So she plans to study nursing and then leave her hometown behind.

"Sparkman just ain't the place," Bosley said. "It's boring. There's nothing to do. I've been here my whole entire life, and I'm ready to get onto better things."

Aside from gatherings at local churches, the school is one of the last sources of entertainment and community spirit. Parents flock to basketball games to cheer on their children and visit with neighbors. But the school is a shadow of its former self.

Dandelions and buttercups sprout across the football field, where cleats once shredded the earth. Boards cover the windows of the press box and concession stand because there aren't enough students to form a team.

Inside the school, a poster of a fancy car reminds students, "In an average lifetime, a person with a college degree makes $1.1 million more than a person without a degree."

There's no guarantee that the new scholarship will ease the school's woes. So far, the program has raised about $53,000, barely enough to send a single student to a top-tier university for one year. But in Arkansas, the most expensive state school rings up at just over $7,000 per year in tuition and fees, so school officials suspect the fund will last for a few years.

To be eligible for some of those dollars, high school seniors must earn good grades, qualify for the state's lottery-funded scholarship and apply for financial aid. Sparkman will then pick up the rest of the tab for tuition and fees, up to the cost of the most expensive public school in the state.

It's not clear how long they'll be able to dole out cash without help from some wealthy benefactor. Unanswered, too, is the question of whether the added money will change attitudes toward higher education in Arkansas, where fewer than 19 percent of adults earn bachelor's degrees. Only West Virginia ranks lower, at 17 percent.

"The program doesn't seem to be any kind of guarantee that the kids will come back," said John Gaber, a professor of political science and public policy at the University of Arkansas. "It's a really good investment in the people but not necessarily a great investment in the community."

Plus, scholarship programs carry the burden of not only getting students to college, but getting them to finish.

"I do think the community needs to be prepared for students going off to college and not succeeding there," said Michelle Miller-Adams, who wrote a book about the Kalamazoo Promise, a Michigan program that has paid out millions of dollars to help high school graduates afford college.

That program's been successful so far, attracting more students to the school district and inspiring other communities across the country to launch similar scholarships of their own. But it remains to be seen if a model designed for a city can produce similar results for a map dot like Sparkman.

Jennifer Daniell hopes it will. So, she enrolled her daughters in school there and went back to work full-time as a nurse in Arkadelphia. For her, the scholarship is a way to finance her dream that they become doctors, lawyers, maybe politicians, before coming back to Sparkman - a town without a hospital, courthouse or statehouse.

"It would be great if some of these kids could go to college and come up with entrepreneurial ideas to help the town thrive," she said. But "it will probably stay as is."

---

Jeannie Nuss can be reached at http://twitter.com/jeannienuss .

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