In an effort to stem the school-to-prison pipeline and to keep kids in school, the Choice Bus was rolled out, using the stark contrasts between stories from prisoners who dropped out and statistics on those who completed school to help students understand their options in life, and how their decisions can affect their futures.
The Choice Bus is an initiative of the Mattie C. Stewart Foundation, a national nonprofit created in 2007 to help educators, community leaders and other interested groups reduce the dropout rate and increase the graduation rate. Dr. Shelley Stewart named the foundation in honor of his mother, whose murder he witnessed at the hands of his father at the age of five. The tragic incident put him at risk of poverty, homelessness and dropping out of school. Had it not been for his passionate first-grade teacher, Mamie Foster, Stewart’s life may have gone in a different direction. But no matter what was going on in his life — running away, bouncing from one relative’s home to another, changing schools — Stewart remembered Mrs. Foster’s stringent message that you could be anything you wanted if you had an education. And for Stewart, education made all the difference.
The Choice Bus is a fleet of three busses that travel around the U.S.. They have been decked out to appear as half school bus and half prison bus, showing children what their choices in regards to education can really mean. More than 2 million children have visited the Choice Bus, an experience-based learning tool that features a four-minute minute video quiz about the differences between dropouts and college grads, and testimonials from prisoners. After the film, a curtain is opened to reveal a prison cell, including beds and toilet, demonstrating the reality of where negative choices can lead. After spending some time in the cell, students are given pledge cards to make positive choices. Presenters help students see the value of staying in school, and of pursuing further opportunities — whether college, trade school or other constructive paths. The goal is show that a choice that may seem small and insignificant at a time when you are young can actually have far-reaching consequences, potentially for the rest of your life. The Choice Bus is not a scared-straight style program, but provides real information to students who will be faced with real decisions.
The Choice Bus goes hand in hand with the foundation’s Inside Out documentary, which also emphasizes the importance of education through interviews with inmates who talk about how their lives would have been different if they had made other decisions and stayed in school.
Education is imperative to stemming the school-to-prison pipeline. Seventy-five percent of inmates are high school dropouts, and 80 percent are functionally illiterate. About 7,000 students drop out of school every day — to the tune of more than 1.2 million each year.
Post-secondary education also pays off financially. On average, college graduates will make more than $1 million more in their lifetimes than peers that do not pursue further education or training. Any initiative that helps reduce mass incarceration and improve lives for youth is a move in the right direction.
The Mattie C. Stewart Foundation hopes to empower youth by making them understand and embrace the importance of education. A quote from Victor Hugo lines the walls of each Choice Bus: “He who opens a school door, closes a prison.” That’s certainly the hope.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com and PrisonerResource.com.