Choice Bus brings life decisions to school

by W. Winston Skinner


Ray Anderson talks with students aboard the Choice Bus at Heard County Middle School in Franklin. 

The Choice Bus looks a lot like an ordinary school bus.

Inside, however, are murals with inspirational slogans, a screen for showing a film — and a recreated jail cell. The bus travels the country, offering students a look at what life in prison is like and about how choices — such as staying in school or quitting — have lifelong effects.

One of the slogans on the wall read: “Education is the key to life, to success, to freedom, to everything.”

The bus spent the day at Heard County Middle School on March 7. Ray Anderson and J.P.Taylor guided groups of students through the bus experience — which included a talk by Anderson, a film featuring prisoners called “The Choice is Yours” and a tour of the cramped jail cell featuring real jail accoutrements from Alabama.

“We go all over the country to speak to students like you,” Anderson told one group of students. He explained the bus is funded by the Mattie C. Stewart Foundation. The foundation was started by Dr. Shelley Stewart, who named the foundation for his mother.

As a boy, Stewart saw his mother murdered by his alcoholic father. At one point, he was “living in a horse stable,” Anderson said. With only the basic clothes, no facilities for bathing — “no toothbrush or toothpaste” — Stewart was ridiculed by other students, Anderson said.

“He got picked on. He got bullied. He got made fun of,” Anderson said.

“He made the choice to follow what his teachers said,” Anderson noted. Stewart graduated at the top of his class, earned two graduate degrees and became a successful businessman.

The foundation he started shares Stewart’s philosophy of recognizing the value of education and how it can transform lives. HCMS students took a quick quiz and learned 75 percent of prison inmates never finished high school and college graduates earn $1 million more than other people over a lifetime.

People who made choices to quit school and/or to get involved in criminal activities, “wasted their education,” Anderson said. “They wasted their hopes and their dreams.”

As groups of students crowded into the tiny cell, Anderson explained real jail cells are often smaller. Although the cell had bunk beds on one side, he said many cells will accommodate at least one other bunk bed, possibly two — for a total of as many as six people sharing the space, sleeping area and toilet.

“Nothing is designed for privacy. Prisoners give up their privacy. Every part of their day is controlled. Someone controls when they wake up, when they eat, when they sleep, when they bathe,” Anderson explained.

“Giving up privacy — that’s something we all love,” Anderson said.

He noted there is no light switch in the cell because lighting is controlled from a central location. A sign in the cell explained the prison day, starting with wakeup at 3 a.m. and breakfast a half hour later.

Anderson explained how bad choices pile upon each other. A decision not to get an education can lead to unemployment, which brings with it a lack of money. A lack of money can push someone toward criminal activity, which leads to jail time.

“We all love money. Yes, we do,” Anderson said.

Mike Roberts, HCMS principal, explained how the Choice Bus and his school made a connection. “Each morning at Heard County Middle School we start our morning off with an inspirational or motivational video before we do our televised announcements. In searching for something of this nature, I came across the Inside-Out Choice videos from the Mattie C. Stewart Foundation,” he said.

The videos “really peaked my interest” so Roberts looked into the Choice Bus program.

Although some seventh and eighth graders visited the bus, the focus was on sixth graders. “The research is clear that students who tend not to graduate or graduate on time get off-track in sixth grade,” Roberts said.

Roberts said parents often think their sixth graders have finished elementary school — and are ready to make decisions on their own. He said that is not the case.

“A parent needs to be all in their child's business — monitor the friends they are associating with, monitor all of their social media pages, monitor their grades online every week, schedule parent/teacher conferences, keep unsupervised time to a minimum — and when they are at a friend's house make sure they are there and supervised,” he said.

“Kids at this age may push parents away on the surface, but deep down they want them involved,” Roberts said.

“I want kids to see the big picture of education — its importance and its power to change their lives. There is too much emphasis in education placed on test scores by our state and federal government,” he said.

Too much emphasis on a single test given on a certain day “sends the wrong message to students about the purpose of education,” Roberts said.

He said teacher quality “is very important” — but not a more significant factor than poverty. “It is not more important than hunger,” he said.

“Do we want our students to perform well on tests? Absolutely, and they do quite well at our school. However, as citizens we need to place more emphasis on the power of education to change students' lives for the better,” Roberts reflected.

“We also have to make it real to our students what is likely to happen to those who don't embrace this free gift of education. The Choice Bus does just that,” he said.

Yvonne Taunton of the Mattie C. Stewart Foundation said “more than two million students in 20 states” have visited the Choice Bus since the program was launched in 2008.

State Farm partnered with the foundation to arrange for more than 1,500 Georgia students — including those at HCMS — to experience the Choice Bus over a two-week period from March 4-14.

Roberts said the March 7 visit by the bus was the first at Heard County Middle. “I hope to have them back each year to present to our sixth graders,” he said.

Near the close of the Choice Bus presentation, Anderson addressed the students. “Put yourself in the right situation with your friends. Make sure you have good friends. Make sure you do well together,” he said.

“It’s up to you,” Anderson said. “Go and get that education.”

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