Choice Bus drives home the reality of dropping out

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Steve Huffman
Students at West Rowan and Knox middle schools were presented some statistics Tuesday that should have grabbed their attention:
– Seventy-five percent of all prison inmates are high school dropouts. Eighty percent of those inmates can’t read or write.
– High school dropouts earn, on average, $17,000 a year. Graduating high school bumps that figure to $27,000.
– Over the course of a lifetime, a college graduate will earn $1 million more than someone who doesn’t graduate college.
The figures came courtesy of The Mattie C. Stewart Foundation’s Choice Bus that visited West Rowan Middle and Knox on Tuesday.
“We’re tool makers, we don’t pretend to be educators,” said Phil Christian, the foundation’s executive director who greeted students at the door to the bus. “We work to decrease the dropout rate.”
Tuesday’s Choice Bus visit was sponsored by Communities in Schools of Rowan County. Students heard some hard facts concerning the future they face if they drop out of school. Then they viewed a video √≥ titled “InsideOut” √≥that included a visit inside a prison where inmates told of the mistake they made by quitting school.
Finally, the back wall of the Choice Bus was opened to reveal a simulated prison cell. Students took a look inside the 8-by-8-foot enclosure, reminded that if they were incarcerated, they’d likely share the cramped quarters with three other inmates.
It wasn’t a pleasant message.
Christian said Choice Bus No. 1 (the one that visited Rowan County) first rolled in October 2008. In the year since, more than 80,000 students have viewed the presentation offered therein.
The first bus was such a success that Choice Bus No. 2 was put on the road this past August. Already, more than 25,000 students have passed through its doors. Christian said 10 more buses are in the process of being outfitted as Choice Buses, soon to bring the fleet to 12.
The Mattie C. Stewart Foundation, the nonprofit organization that sponsors the buses, is based in Birmingham, Ala.
Christian said that while the buses have been opened to students ranging from elementary to high school grades, it has been determined that middle school students probably most benefit from the message.
“They’re in a critical decision-making phase of their lives,” Christian said. “We’re not here to scare them, but to show the realities they face if they don’t get a high school education.”
Christian said the figures concerning dropouts are frightening. He said that every year, 1.2 million high school students quit school. That amounts to an average of one student every 26 seconds.
Christian also noted that 25 years ago, the United States ranked first in the world in getting its students through high school. Today, the United States has plunged to 18th in the world.
“Education is the key,” Christian said. “We’ve got to show these kids what kind of future they face if they drop out.”
Lynn Smelley, program manager for The Mattie C. Stewart Foundation, was the speaker who addressed students aboard the Choice Bus.
“You can have a life of your dreams or a life of nightmares,” he told students at one point.
Before the presentation was through, Smelley reminded students that once inmates are sent to prison, their lives change.
“Everything is taken away,” he said, “all your choices.”