East Wake Middle School students stepped foot on a bus Thursday that never left the parking lot.
But it did take the students on a journey of sorts. The Maddie C. Stewart Foundation’s “Choice Bus” gave the young scholars a glimpse of how people’s lives can play out when they make education a priority, or when they chose not to.
Several waves of students, mostly sixth-graders, participated in sessions lasting about 45 minutes on the bus that has been converted to suit the needs of the Alabama-based nonprofit’s programming. The front portion serves as classroom and theater, and an 8-by-8-foot section at the back of the bus houses a mock prison cell.
The prison cell was unveiled after the students watched video testimonies from inmates, who said they regret not taking advantage of their education. The presentation indicated 75 percent of people in prison never graduated high school.
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“We give them a more realistic perspective on their choices and just try to reinforce what their teachers are already telling them about staying in school and making good choices,” said Anthony Williams, one of the presenters.
Williams said the prison cell is an attention-getter for the students, but that it is not intended to be the main takeaway from the experience.
“You can talk to them all day, but by putting them in a situation where they see how (prison) looks and see how it could feel they get a better idea how their future could turn out,” Willams said. “We try not to leave them with that negative impression for what we came to tell them, but we do want them to be informed.”
The program heavily showcased education-fueled life outcomes – telling the students high school graduates make $27,000 per year on average, and that a person who takes further educational steps after high school stands to make $1 million more than those who don’t over the course of their lifetime.
MCSF presenter Jessica Latten cautioned one of her audiences against getting mixed up with bad influences they may encounter from their peers. Latten told the students they are young adults now, so it is time they start focusing on making decisions that will serve them well – not decisions that please someone else, who won’t be held accountable.
Sixth-grader C’Jay Timmons seemed to walk away with a good handle on the message the presenters were hoping to get across.
“I liked it,” Timmons said. “It showed me what a jail cell looks like and why you shouldn’t go, and to stay in school and to not do anything bad. What (the inmates in the video) did was wrong, but it told me just one little bad thing in your life could wreck your life. It could mess up your dreams and everything you want to do.”
As they exited the bus, students had the chance to sign a banner pledging to stay in school and indicating what they want to be when they grow older.
The stop at East Wake Middle School was one of five in the state throughout the week for the Choice Bus, and the only one in Wake County.