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Choice Bus brings home life lessons to teens

“If you learn to read . . . if you get an education, you can be anything you want to be.”

The words of Dr. Shelley Stewart are sound advice. But for all too many teenagers in the U.S., it is advice soundly ignored.

Just look at the statistics: Each year, more than 1.2 million high school students drop out of school. 7,000 students drop out every school day.

And those students are six times more likely than high school grads to commit crimes and become incarcerated. 75 percent of America’s prison inmates are high school dropouts, with 80 percent of inmates functionally illiterate.

The Mattie C. Stewart Foundation in Birmingham is hoping to help turn things around by helping educators and community leaders reduce the dropout rate and increase the graduation rate through a variety of tools and resources.

One of those resources was put to use in Butler County in mid-December.

The foundation’s Choice Bus visited Greenville High School to provide an eye-opening look at the harsh realities of life for all too many high school dropouts.

Willie Thornton, dropout prevention officer for the school, said the bus, which is set up as half classroom, and half jail cell, was a great learning experience for all the students who took part.

A total of 377 students from GHS, Greenville Middle School, Lowndes County schools and the high schools in south Butler County participated in the Choice Bus experience.

Thornton had already been conducting seminars with GHS students considered at risk to emphasize the importance of making the right choices and staying in school. He said the lessons taught by the Choice Bus “really brought that point across.”

Students in groups of 24 first watched a short film featuring real-life inmates of Alabama prisons. Black, white, male, female, young and old, the inmates share their stories of making the wrong choices, running with the wrong crowd, and ending up behind bars, feeling few options are available to them in life.

Once the film was over, a curtain parted and revealed an 8-foot by 8-foot cell, which the students were invited to visit in order to experience

what it was like to be in jail.

“Some of the students just didn’t want to go inside that cell . . . it really made an impact on them. This happened on December 13, and students are still talking about it. Some have shared stories of their own relatives who made the wrong choices and ended up like the people in the video,” Thornton said.

He said he has also taken his seminar students for a tour of Butler County’s new correctional facility to further bring the lesson on right choices home.

“Our kids react to that visual impact, and seeing how local prisoners are constantly monitored through modern technology, how they can no longer really see the outside world while they are in jail – it makes them think,” Thornton said.

The Choice Bus video also broke down for the students the economics of a dropout’s life.

“It gave them specifics on salaries for a dropout versus a high school graduate, and a college graduate. When they saw the actual dollars and cents in front of their eyes, how much less the average dropout makes, it made a big impression,” Thornton said.

The whole aim of the Choice Bus and Thornton’s work with the school system: “To help our students take ownership of their education.”

As a result of participating in the Choice Bus experience, Thornton said a Pledge Wall was being created for the high school.

“Our kids will be signing pledge cards and posting them as a reminder that this is what they need to do to secure their future and make a better life – to stay in school and get a good education,” he said.

Greenville High School principal Dr. Charles Farmer said he was especially pleased the opportunity to participate in the Choice Bus experience was extended beyond his school.

“We could have selfishly said, let’s keep this for our Greenville High students. But I am proud this became more of a true community event by bringing in students from the middle school, the south part of the county and from Lowndes County, too,” Farmer said.

To learn more about the Choice Bus and the Mattie C. Stewart Foundation, visit www.mattiecstewart.org.