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Students, young teens experience ‘Choice’

This mock prison cell fits in the back quarter of a school bus. It is part of The Choice Bus exhibit students at Jonesboro Middle and Kendrick Middle were able to experience recently. (Staff Photo: Johnny Jackson)

This mock prison cell fits in the back quarter of a school bus. It is part of The Choice Bus exhibit students at Jonesboro Middle and Kendrick Middle were able to experience recently. (Staff Photo: Johnny Jackson)

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A class of Jonesboro Middle students takes instruction about The Choice Bus presentation, which targets middle schoolers in an effort to reach young teens before they form bad habits or get discouraged about their education opportunities. (Staff Photo: Johnny Jackson)

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Students at Jonesboro Middle view a short film featuring testimony from young inmates about how they landed in prison rather than pursued their dreams through education. (Staff Photo: Johnny Jackson)

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Jonesboro Middle students tour a small cell installed into the back of a school bus as part of The Choice Bus presentations geared toward encouraging students to stay in school and avoid the school-to-prison pipeline. (Staff Photo: Johnny Jackson)

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Kendrick Middle eighth-grader Jalen Hughes, 14, examines the mock prison cell exhibit on The Choice Bus. Presenters said the cell was installed on The Choice Bus with used prison materials such as the bedding, the bars and the sink-toilet. (Staff Photo: Johnny Jackson)

JONESBORO — Students sat quietly on the darkened school bus, their eyes focused in the glow of a television screen emanating the regret of a young woman not much older than they.

Jonesboro and Kendrick middle schools recently took part in a “Choice Bus” demonstration that featured a four-minute film about choices.

The short film included interviews from inmates — many of them high school dropouts — giving testimony about their life experiences and how they came to make choices that landed them in prison.

Monique interviewed from prison in the middle of a seven-year sentence for a crime she committed at 14. She was the same age as Kendrick Middle eighth-graders Jalen Hughes and Tyquan Flowers, who participated in the demonstration presented by The Choice Bus in partnership with State Farm.

“I think that’s messed up,” said Flowers. “She wasn’t thinking about her education. (And) it made me have second thoughts about hanging around the wrong people.”

Flowers has dreams of going off to college, possibly playing professional football and eventually owning his own shoe business.

Kendrick Middle students occasionally get the stay-in-school message from their principal and teachers, he said, but somehow Choice Bus made that message “real, real.”

Flowers said he better realized the effects of his choices when he felt the thin, metal frame of the prison bunk bed. The bed was part of the exhibit setup at the back of Choice Bus — a prison cell replica with real prison bars and toilet sink installations.

The cell, initially hidden behind a dark curtain, was revealed to students following the film. Some responded with wide eyes and others reacted with low gasps.

The Choice Bus is a program created by The Mattie C. Stewart Foundation, whose aim is to help reduce the nation’s high school dropout rate.

Foundation Executive Director Sherri Stewart said The Choice Bus experience allows students to envision two dramatically different futures and sends a message about the value of education and how ones potential can be guided by choices made earlier in life.

“The major focus during the presentation is showing young people what education can do for them and how it’s connected to career choices and lifetime earning potential,” said Stewart, noting graduates can make as much as $1 million over a lifetime than non-graduates.

Gloria Hines, a parent liaison at Jonesboro Middle, was instrumental in getting The Choice Bus to students at her school.

“The Choice Bus is something I think our kids will benefit from,” said Hines.

She said it is important for students to learn early that completing high school and continuing education or training thereafter opens doors to future careers.

Jonesboro Middle Principal Dr. Lisa Hightower said The Choice Bus was a worthwhile experience for many of the school’s sixth- through eighth-graders.

“I think that exposure at this age is important too, because they have time to determine which path they are going to take,” said Hightower.

Chet Pennock, a lead presenter for The Choice Bus, has seen thousands of young teens experience the presentation. He said more than 1.5 million students nationwide have walked through the replica cell doors on The Choice Bus since its unveiling in 2008.

“Our mission is to try to decrease dropout rates and increase the graduation rate,” said Pennock.

He said the interactive program targets students in grades six through nine, who are in their optimal years of influence. That was the goal for Foundation founder and President Dr. Shelley Stewart.

Stewart established the Foundation, named after his late mother, in 2007 to encourage youth to choose and value their education over whatever could land them hopelessly in prison.

“Education is the key to a successful life,” said Stewart. “We need to show every child that they have the potential to pursue a career and make a good living. That’s why we are grateful to State Farm for helping us further our mission to increase the graduation rate in Georgia and across the nation.”