Traveling bus connects dropouts, prison

Photos by Heather Rousseau/The Herald
Jasper Middle School sixth-graders Becca Schitter, left, and Anna Steffy walked through a replica jail cell on the Choice Bus that visited the school Wednesday. The bus, coordinated by the Mattie C. Steward Foundation in Alabama, tours the country to inform students about the consequences of dropping out of school, citing that eight of 10 school dropouts end up in prison. The Choice Bus stopped at Southridge Middle School on Thursday.

Herald Staff Writer

A group of eighth-graders stood inside a stark jail cell, peering into the combination sink and toilet in one corner and checking out the hard, inhospitable bunk beds in another. The back wall was all gray bricks and in the front were the cold metal bars meant to keep them inside.

These Southridge Middle School students weren’t really in trouble, and they wouldn’t actually be spending the night in the tiny room. Instead, they were seeing a glimpse of the consequences their futures might hold if they choose to dropout of school instead of obtaining their diplomas.

The imitation jail cell rigged up in the back of an school bus dubbed the “Choice Bus” is part of a prevention program run by the Birmingham, Ala.-based Mattie C. Stewart Foundation. Representatives take their bus throughout the country, and stopped at Jasper Middle School on Wednesday and Southridge on Thursday to spread their message.

“We come in and start the conversation with students about the power of education, the importance of choices and what the likely consequences of not having an education are,” said foundation representative Eryka Perry.

Jasper Middle School sixth-graders listened to a presentation while sitting inside the Choice Bus on Wednesday at the school. The bus’ stop included video testimonials from students who dropped out of school and ended up in jail. The bus visited Southridge Middle School on Thursday.

According to 2014 research compiled by Education Week magazine, about 3 million students drop out of school annually throughout the country; that’s about 8,300 per day. Those dropouts will not be eligible for 90 percent of U.S. jobs, and are more likely to commit crimes. About 75 percent of crimes were committed by a high school dropout.

Inside the choice bus, the students start by watching a video featuring an Alabama inmate named Monique. At the time the foundation interviewed her, she was 19 and in the middle of a seven-year sentence for gang-related crimes. Monique was tried as an adult and sent to prison at age 14 after dropping out of school. The cell in the back of the bus was designed to look like the one in which Monique stayed, and it contained only the bunk beds and a toilet to a connected sink .

“That means the same area where the prisoner brushes their teeth, washes their face, is the same area where they’re going to use the restroom,” foundation representative John Paul Taylor told the group. “The bigger picture of that is there is absolutely no privacy. When inmates enter through the gates of a maximum-security prison, that’s one of the things they’re basically giving up. All those things are directly affected by the choices they made when they had that freedom.”

Taylor explained that because dropouts earn less money — $10,368 less than graduates in a single year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — they are more likely to become desperate and try to earn money more quickly by illegal means. He asked the students to think of their own career dreams and how much education they will need to accomplish them.

“Have you all ever heard the phrase knowledge is power?” Taylor asked. “Listen, that is the one thing that no one can take away from you. In order to accomplish anything, you have to have a certain level of knowledge.”

Jasper Middle School sixth-grader Ariana Bravo, middle, walked through a replica jail cell during a tour of the Choice Bus on Wednesday at the school. The bus visited Southridge Middle School on Thursday.

For eighth-grader Carli Meyer, dropping out is not an option. That’s because she hopes to one day become a criminal investigator. She said the bus was a cool learning tool.

“I learned a lot from it because if you make bad choices, you find out the consequences from it,” she said of the bus. “It was nice to see what it looked like.”

Meyer’s friend and fellow eighth-grader Bailee Fischer said she hopes to enter the medical field, another career choice that will require a high school diploma and college training.

“It was really interesting,” she said of the presentation.

After the Choice Bus program, the middle school students signed a banner, pledging to stay in school and out of trouble. The school will display the banner as a reminder to students of their pact.

Contact Claire Moorman at

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