EDUCATION: SanLee students learn about consequences on 'Choice Bus'

Nov. 01, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

Halloween is known for people trying to frighten one another through pranks, costumes and surprises. But SanLee Middle School took a slightly different route this year, putting students through a scared-straight program about staying in school.

The Mattie C. Stewart Foundation's Choice Bus was on campus Thursday, with hundreds of students taking part in 20-minute sessions in which they watched a video about the benefits of an education which also contained testimony from people in prison — many of them serving life sentences — who said their biggest mistake was not finishing their education.

"There is a direct correlation between dropout rates and prison," Eryka Perry, the program leader, said. "Seventy-five percent of inmates don't have a high school education. It matters."

According to the group's statistics, dropouts are significantly more likely to go to prison than people with a high school diploma — and someone who goes on to graduate from college will reportedly earn, on average, $1 million more than a high school dropout.

And, Perry said, it's generally not even anything about high school itself that makes kids drop out.

"We [visit] some high schools, some elementary schools," Perry said. "But it's mainly middle schools. Statistics show the decision to drop out is usually made by eighth grade."

About 30 students filed onto the bus at a time, where they watched the video interviews with inmates — including one 19-year-old who said she was a good student but decided, at age 14, to get mixed up with a gang. She's now in prison, and as soon as the video was over, Perry drew back some curtains in the middle of the bus to reveal a replica jail cell.

Students who had previously been slouching in the seats suddenly sat up to get a look at the minuscule two-bunk cell as Perry told them about how in prison the toilets and sinks are combined into a single device, and inmates have no choice over their bedtime, clothes, food or really anything else. The students toured the cell, with several commenting on how cramped it was, before heading outside to sign a banner pledging to stay in school and thus have a better shot at avoiding prison life.

Several local State Farm Insurance agents helped pass out literature and encourage the students; the company sponsors the Choice Bus along with Communities in Schools. One of the local agents, Bill McClelland, got up after each session and spoke shortly to the students. He said he has had extended family members in prison and knows the kind of conditions inmates live in.

"If this can keep even a couple of them in school and out of jail, then that's good," he said.

Perry added that while many factors contribute to how likely someone is to end up in prison, the most common factor is education. More than 80 percent of inmates are functionally illiterate, for example, according to the foundation.

"There's a lot of things on the table, but the thing that affects it all is education," she said. "It goes across color lines, socio-economic status, everything."

The foundation, which has been around since 2007, doesn't keep track of the thousands of students who go through the bus nationwide to see if the presentation has any effect on whether they stay in school. But the dropout rate has been decreasing, and Lauren Black, the Communities in Schools representative at SanLee, said programs like this have certainly helped.

"I think we're doing pretty [well]," Black said. "I know we've increased our graduation rate in recent years."

Lee County's four-year graduation rate was above the state average last year at about 86 percent — and up from only about 63 percent as recently as the 2006-07 school year. Black said that while national groups focusing on Lee County does help, there are also local programs that can reach students more than just once per year, and at multiple schools.

At SanLee, where Black has a classroom of her own, she said she can meet with struggling students individually or in small groups at any time, and after school, she also runs a jewelry-making class for girls called the Glitter and Gold Club. And next month, she said, a group of soldiers from Fort Bragg are scheduled to come over for lunch, where they'll eat with some of the male students.

"I'm hoping it'll be a great chance for some of the guys here to just sit down at lunch and talk with these soldiers, who can be a positive male role model for them," she said.