'Choice Bus' Gets Students to Ponder Dropout Dangers

Traveling program encourages students to stay in school

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A school bus of a different stripe idles in front of Crescent High School in Iva, S.C., this month.

The first half looks like a typical yellow school bus. But the rest is painted a dull white, the color of prison buses in Alabama.

Inside, eight 11th-grade girls sit listening to Chet Pennock tell them why they need to stay in school.

Reason No. 1 is to avoid prison.

At the back of the bus, the girls walk inside an 8-by-8-foot replica of a cell that holds a metal bunk bed, toilet, and water fountain once used by prisoners in Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala.

Some of the students whisper. Others say nothing and stare blankly at a schedule posted on the wall. Wake-up time at most prisons is 3:30 a.m. Work begins at 7 a.m. Lights must be out at 10:30 p.m.

"No cellphones, no iPods, no video games, no curling irons, no hair products," Mr. Pennock said during the bus tour this month. "A typical cell this size will almost always have four people, all out in the open to see, hear, and smell the things we do in private."

Mr. Pennock is a lead presenter with the Mattie C. Stewart Foundation, based in Birmingham, Ala. The nonprofit drives its Choice Buses to middle schools and high schools across the nation to reduce the dropout rate. The message is simple, and tangible: Stay in school or you could go to jail.

Eye-Opening Statistics

Before students walk into the jail cell—the bars never close on them—they watch a short movie that presents sobering statistics: 75 percent of inmates nationwide are high school dropouts, and college graduates earn $1 million more than dropouts over a lifetime.

Student reactions tend to be candid, from an age group that generally has little to say, said program manager Lynn Smelley.

"It goes from, 'Oh, I don't want to be here,' to 'Are you kidding me?' " he said.

The bus stayed at Crescent for the entire school day and was later in Greenville, Union, and Sumter. It is in South Carolina for free because of a partnership with State Farm Insurance and Personal Pathways to Success, a statewide education program. Since the foundation began in 2007, more than 1.5 million students have stepped on its buses.

The bus is not a scare tactic, said Phil Christian, the executive director of the foundation.

"It's simply there to remind you that this is the likely consequence of people who drop out," he said."You hear them tell them all the time, 'Hey you've got to stay in school.' But do we ever tell them why? I think it's just assumed."

The foundation does not keep track of the dropout rates of schools visited by its buses, but "Choice Bus" has a 100 percent ask-back rate, Mr. Christian said.

"We've got a waiting list so long we can't accommodate all of them," he said.

Local efforts are also under way to crackdown on the dropout problem.

Crescent Principal Devon Smith is staging his own intervention to motivate students to take charge of their futures. He keeps a notebook with the names of about 50 students who are behind on classwork, homework, and projects. Students must stay after school to complete projects, and sometimes that means missing football practice.

Focus on Consequences

If he has to, Mr. Smith will drive students home or two to ensure they can participate.

"We want to start changing that culture to, 'I will do my work, I will be successful,' " he said. "The main reason kids fail is because they don't get all the work in. It's amazing."

Students slack off because they're bored, lazy—the list goes on, the principal said. But he saw improvements almost immediately following the first week of after-school academic detention.

Parents are supportive of the dropout initiative, but it is tiring. Mr. Smith spent most of a recent school day talking with students about the importance of school.

The 2,600-student Anderson School District 3, which includes Crescent as its only high school, has had a dwindling number of dropouts. According to statistics from the South Carolina education department, the number dropped to 14 during the 2011-12 school year, from 33 in 2007-08.

Christopher Bowling, an 11th grader, vows not to be part of that statistic. He plans on attending college, a plan affirmed by watching video interviews of prisoners while he was aboard the bus.

"Hearing other people's stories makes me want to do the right thing," he said.

Vol. 32, Issue 12, Page 9

Published in Print: November 14, 2012, as 'Choice Bus' Gets Students to Ponder Dropout Dangers
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