This wasn’t another ho-hum lesson students sit through to emphasize the value of making good decisions. This was dynamic. This was vivid. This was The Choice Bus, which used $75,000 worth of renovations to convert a regular school bus into a special classroom — including a prison cell.
Thanks to the Birmingham, Ala.-based Mattie C. Stewart Foundation and sponsor State Farm, the visit from The Choice Bus to Baker Middle School on Friday was free to the Muscogee County School District, along with three other middle schools in Columbus this week: Richards, Eddy and Double Churches.
Those schools were on the schedule because they are the ones that responded to the invitation by the deadline, foundation spokeswoman Sherri Stewart told the Ledger-Enquirer in an email.
“There’s no selection criteria,” she said. “We use the districts’ school database and send invitations to every school. We schedule based on first responses. Nothing more, nothing less.”
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Since the Birmingham, Ala.-based foundation established it in 2008, more than 2 million students in 21 states have gone through The Choice Bus experience.
The estimated 200 Baker students out of the enrollment’s 520 who went on the bus Friday were mostly sixth-graders during their social studies period. The administration chose the sixth-graders, said academic dean Debra Porch, because they comprise the largest class and have the most years ahead of them to benefit from the program.
“We always want to take advantage of opportunities to provide our students with real-life experiences or any type of encouragement to stay in school and continue their education and make positive choices,” Porch said.
And students in middle school are at a key time of transition in their lives.
“It’s where they’re starting to form their own personality, starting to form that independence and becoming who they are,” Porch said. “… Something like this, a Choice Bus, is definitely beneficial to help them make the right decisions.”
Because it’s visual and tangible.
“It’s one thing to talk about it, and some students have some experience with it, whether it’s on TV or a family member or something you just heard about, but seeing is believing,” Porch said.
The Choice Bus presenter Anthony Williams told the two dozen Baker students during the Ledger-Enquirer’s visit why a man named Shelley Stewart started the foundation.
Stewart was 5 years old when he saw his father kill his mother with an ax. He then lived in a barn with his brothers.
“He didn’t have clean clothes or running water,” Williams said. “He didn’t have a hair brush or a tooth brush. So when he went to school, he didn’t look that good, he didn’t smell that good. What do you guys think happened to him every day?”
The students replied, “He got bullied.”
“That’s right,” Williams continued. “That’s why it’s important that you guys are kind to each other, because you never know what somebody is going through at home.”
Stewart persevered. Motivated by a teacher to stay in school, he graduated at the top of his high school class and became a successful businessman, helping him start the Mattie C. Stewart Foundation, named in honor of his mother.
The rest of Friday’s discussion focused on the folks who make different choices.
Williams showed the students a 4-minute video called “The Choice Is Yours.”
In the video, one of the narrators noted some students equate being in school with being in prison. “Really? Prison? I mean, sure, they both have cafeterias and some prisons have gyms like school, but, trust me, this ain’t a prison. This is a place to follow your dreams.”
Three-fourths of inmates are high school dropouts, and college graduates earn during their career an average of $1 million more than high school dropouts, according to the video. “So staying in school may be the most important choice in your life,” one of the narrators said.
The video also showed testimonies from inmates who lament the bad choices they made. The youngest, 19-year-old Monique, received a seven-year prison term for an unspecified mistake she made on the first day of her ninth-grade year when she was 14.
“I started out real good, I mean, doing what my parents told me to do,” she said in the video. “It’s just that I caught up with the wrong crowd. If I would have just stayed in my books like I used to do and hung around a better crowd, the crowd that was going to excel and succeed, I wouldn’t be in the predicament I’m in today. I’m suffering because of one little idiot move that I made.”
Following the video, Williams noted, “Anybody that wanted to visit Monique had to visit her in a place that looks like this.”
He opened the curtain behind him and revealed a replica of an 8-by-8-foot prison cell.
A student gushed, “Oh, my God!”
The cell contains a sink that doubles as a toilet.
“The same place where they wash their face and brush their teeth is the same place where they do the other business,” Williams said.
After the grossed-out students recovered from that image, Williams summarized. “The point is, all of those little basic choices that we have, inmates have no choices because of the choices they made when they were students.”
The experience hit home for Baker sixth-grader Jadis Green, 12.
“I think it was really cool because the way it was set up, the jail cell in there to show us what could happen to somebody, one of us, one day if we made the wrong choice,” said Jadis, who wants to play in the NBA “after four years of college” but has several backup plans, such as being a mathematician or a scientist and maybe even being a substitute teacher on the side.
“I don’t hang with the wrong crowd,” Jadis said. “People ask me to do stuff, and I say no because I don’t want to get in trouble.”
Baker sixth-grader Paris Delegal, 12, who wants to be a visual and musical artist, said The Choice Bus is “very helpful for people who are acting up. So that way, they can know the right choices and the wrong choices to do.”