Clay Williamson was in a jovial mood when he boarded the bus.
At 16-years-old, any excuse to leave the classroom for a few minutes is cause for celebration. But once aboard, the jokes and smirks he exchanged with his classmates at New Hope High school evaporated.
Williamson had boarded the Choice Bus. The Choice Bus is not subtle. Half education transportation, half mock prison cell, the Choice Bus helps give high school students across the U.S. a look inside the American penal system without actually being incarcerated.
“That’s one place I never want to go back to,” Williamson said. “It made me think about the benefits of finishing school and got me thinking about going to college.”
That’s the message the Choice Bus tries to convey: 75 percent of U.S. inmates are high school dropouts. The bus houses a mock 8-feet by 8-feet cell, complete with bars, steel-framed bunk beds, a metal toilet connected to a sink. Every student who boards goes in there.
“They’re really impressed with it, and sometimes they’re intimidated,” said Gail Davis, who has worked on the Choice Bus for two years. “They’re impressed into doing the right thing.”
The Choice Bus was started by the Mattie C. Stewart Foundation, a non-profit based in Birmingham in 2007. The foundation is dedicated to dropout prevention by any means necessary. The bus has visited more than two million students in 21 states since 2007.
Students on the bus watch a seven minute clip from the documentary “Inside Out” which examines the U.S. criminal justice system and the lack of education rampant among criminals. Then they are brought into the cell to drive the message home.
“This allows them to experience the tangible example of what a prison cell looks like, without the consequences,” said Eryka Perry, who works with The Choice Bus.
The visit to Lowndes County brought the Choice Bus to Columbus Municipal School District’s McKellar Technology Center and New Hope High School last week. New Hope principal Matt Smith told The Dispatch his school has been trying to bring in the bus for more than two years.
Perry said the students at Columbus and New Hope had been “absolutely amazing” and taken the experience seriously.
Lowndes County School District has a 75 percent graduation rate. CMSD has a 69 percent graduation rate.
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