05/10/09 — Bus shows students choices

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Bus shows students choices

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on May 10, 2009 2:00 AM

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Brogden Middle School student Anthony Bizzell, 14, steps inside a re-creation of a jail cell on the Choice Bus on the bus' visit to Brogden Wednesday.

Eighth-grade students at Dillard Middle School lined up to board a bus in the school parking lot Wednesday morning, unaware that within minutes their entire future would be questioned.

"Choice Bus," a modified school bus that is half classroom, half prison cell, is meant to illustrate what can happen to students if they drop out of school.

Created by the Mattie C. Stewart Foundation, an Alabama-based nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing dropout rates, AT&T of North Carolina sponsored the bus that made two stops in Wayne County, including one at Brogden Middle School that afternoon.

Groups of students first viewed a short video featuring prisoners sharing their stories, most expressing regret over choices they had made that led to their incarceration. An announcer also quizzed the audience, revealing that 75 percent of prisoners are high school dropouts, while 81 percent of inmates can't read or write.

As the screen faded and the TV was moved aside, a curtain was pulled to reveal a jail cell.

"It's an exact replica of a cell that one of the inmates in the documentary, Monique, stayed in," said Phil Christian, executive director of the Stewart Foundation. Monique, he explained, is now 19, but was 14 when she committed the crime and made the bad choices that led to her own imprisonment.

"Young people can really relate to it because she was their age," he said.

It's an 8x8 cell, fairly large by prison standards, Christian said. Students are invited in groups of four to experience what it feels like to be inside. Within the small space, there is a bed, a toilet and a sink.

"Everything is authentic," Christian said. "It was donated by the Alabama Department of Corrections."

As students exited the bus, Trent Miller of AT&T of Goldsboro handed each a pledge card.

Its message elicits the following commitment: "I do hereby pledge to graduate from high school. I solemnly promise for myself and for my future to study hard and to remain in school. I promise to graduate and fulfill my potential. I promise to not cut classes. I will not be lured away by distractions that hinder my education. I will not turn to a life of poverty and crime. I will follow my dreams and become all I can be."

Ideally, it will evoke a positive response, Christian said.

"The pledge card is designed to take back to their classroom, (students are to) read it carefully and if they believe what it says, they can sign it and turn it back in," he said. Cards will then be displayed in the classrooms as a reminder of the commitment students have made -- to themselves, their peers and their families.

The method has proven to be successful, Christian said.

"Since we launched this bus in October 2008, we have been to five states and had 40,000 students go through it," he said. "Choice 2 is being built now, and we plan to add an additional eight more to have a total of 10 by 2010."

It is already much in demand, with school systems across the country responding "in a big way," he added.

Officials from the school system and other local agencies turned out for ceremonies at each of the schools.

"It's such an honor to have this bus in our district," said Dr. Steve Taylor, superintendent of schools. "We have tried to put in place lots of strategies to improve the dropout rates. In the last two years, we have had an explosion of programs that we have put into the high schools. We understand certainly that the first ticket to success is graduating from high school."

Driving into the parking lot, Taylor said, he observed it was a cloudy day. Fitting, he thought.

"It's probably a good day to have this," he told those gathered at Dillard, "because if you were in jail, every day is probably a cloudy day."

The dreary atmosphere of a jail cell was not lost on the students, either.

"That jail (cell), it was so small, and that toilet," cringed Malik Miller.

"It was scary being in that cell, it was scary and terrifying," added Bakari Hamilton.

Classmate Isaac Taylor pointed out, "When you walk into a cell, you just put your whole life behind you."

Fortunately for those who toured the bus, they are still able to make a different choice.

"I learned that it's a better idea to stay in school than drop out," Isaac said.

"For me, I liked the Choice Bus because if you make a certain choice, you have a consequence to every choice," Bakari said. "You can decide now what you want to do."

"I think it was very inspiring because it makes the point that being in jail is not a good thing to do," said Kiandria Dixon.

The harsh reality made such an impression on Bakari, he offered some advice to other youth.

"Jail is scary," he said. "People shouldn't go there. Don't go there, I advise you not to."

The pledge card will also help keep students keep their goal in front of them, Isaac said.

"This is a good way to help students, to organize their promises and stay true to themselves and not make the wrong choices," he said.