Appling Middle School students got a hard look at the decisions before them.
As they sat on the seats of a modified school bus, the bars of a prison cell loomed in front of them.
The Choice Bus, a project of the Mattie C. Stewart Foundation, was parked at the Macon school Tuesday and Wednesday and is scheduled to visit Northeast High School on Thursday and Friday.
The front half of the bus is a classroom setup with bus seats, and the back contains a full-scale replica of a prison cell, with a sink, toilet and metal bunk bed. Presenters Kim White and Chet Pennock took turns talking with groups of 24 students about the importance of education, graduating from high school and having a plan for the future.
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“You’re the one that has to choose,” Pennock told a group of eighth-graders. “You can’t let anyone else make the choices for you. All it takes is the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people. ... You can’t let anyone else steal your dreams.”
Students watched a four-minute video in which inmates talked about choices they had made that ended in their imprisonment, and then students got a look at the close quarters behind bars.
About 1,000 students from the two schools were expected to board the bus by the end of the week, Pennock said. Almost all of Appling Middle’s students and Northeast’s ninth- and 10th-graders will participate. The bus tour has reached more than 2 million students in 21 states since 2008.
Appling counselor Donna Turner worked to bring the Choice Bus to Appling. Middle school is the time to make an impact on students and make sure they are on the right path before they get to high school, she said. Seeing the prison cell was an eye-opening experience for them.
“They need to know why they need to stay in school, and they need to know why it’s important to make good choices,” Turner said. “It’s our responsibility to expose our students to help them to understand the importance of making their lives better.”
The program aims to decrease the high school dropout rate. About 75 percent of prison inmates in America didn’t graduate from high school. Students learned that college graduates generally earn $1 million or more during their lifetime than people who don’t finish high school.
Pennock asked the eighth-graders to make a personal commitment to graduate from high school and then work toward the next step, which could be college, the military or skill training.
Principal Chris Ridley said the Choice Bus had a positive impact on the students. It sparked conversations about their career choices, what colleges they want to attend and the stories they heard on the video.
All middle and high schools would benefit from the program, and he would like to see the Choice Bus visit Appling every year.