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December 6, 2012

A tale of two lives

'Choice Bus’ shows students bleak future without an education

A toilet, a sink, two beds, no windows and steel bars.

Luis Martinez, 13, surveyed that reality as he stood in the 8 foot by 8 foot jail cell Wednesday.

He had not committed a crime. It was the first time he stood behind bars and, if Chet Pennock has his way, it will be the last.

Pennock, a spokesman for the Mattie C. Stewart Foundation, invited several students at Dalton Middle School and Westside Middle School to enter the jail cell this week. The cell was built in the back of the “Choice Bus” — half school bus, half prison — designed to show students the possible consequences of dropping out of school.

After leaving the bus, Luis said he “really didn’t like the idea of going to the bathroom in front of people.”

But that’s what awaits most high school dropouts, Pennock said.

“High school dropouts are eight times more likely to end up in prison than a high school graduate,” he told students on the bus. “Seventy-five percent of all prison inmates are dropouts.”

The bus, spearheaded by Shelly Stewart who started the foundation, travels throughout the nation to tell students “they have a choice; they have options other than crime to lead to a successful life,” said Lynn Smelley, the foundation’s program manager.

Georgia’s graduation dropped from 80.9 percent in 2001 to 67.4 percent in April, but Carolyn Mathis, 13, said she has never thought about dropping out.

“Not even once,” she said. “I want to go on to medical school and this reminded me to keep going towards my dreams. Experiencing a jail cell — what it’s really like and how many people live in those living conditions — sort of makes you think. Not to mention how much more money you can make with a college degree.”

On average, students who graduate high school can make up to $27,000 a year, said Pennock, while college graduates can make $1 million more in their lifetime than someone who drops out.

Eduardo Garcia, 13, likes that idea.

“I didn’t know you could make that much money,” he said. “I don’t want to end up like that (as a dropout). You have to wake up early and do your business in front of other people. No thanks. I’m going to try and be an engineer instead.”

The bus was funded through State Farm, which paid $2,500 a day to have the foundation’s speakers to come to the middle schools, said Brandon Combs, a local State Farm agent.

“We wanted to get a county and city school,” Combs said. “It’s important for people to know how much schools can benefit them.”

There is also a benefit to the community, said Nancy Zahn, assistant principal of Dalton Middle.

“Kids around here used to have a job waiting for them even if they had no diploma,” Zahn said. “They could find something in the (carpet) mills. But all that is changing now, especially with technology. It’s not enough to just work. You have to be educated now. You have to graduate.”

For more information on the Choice Bus, visit

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