The bus parked behind the main building at Green Acres Middle School wasn’t dropping kids off. And those who got on weren’t going anywhere.
But while the bus wasn’t moving, it was taking the students on a virtual trip into future possibilities.
The vehicle for this particular onsite field trip is the Mattie C. Stewart Foundation Choice Bus. On its side are the words, “A multiple choice experience for the future of America. Think before you drop out.”
That’s its message in a nutshell: kids need to think before they drop out of school, and they need to make choices that will lead to success in life. The alternative, presented in stark but easily digestible terms, may be prison, where 75 percent of inmates don’t have high school diplomas.
The bus and the nonprofit Mattie C. Stewart Foundation are the creations of Mattie C.’s son Shelley, a legendary disc jockey in the 1960s known as “Shelley the Playboy,” and now the successful entrepreneur and author who owns one of Birmingham’s top advertising, marketing and public relations firms, O2 Ideas.
Since the Choice Bus idea hit him in 2008, the three-bus fleet has racked up impressive miles and even more impressive statistics: by May of this year, it had visited 21 states and 2,214,000 students.
The vast majority of those students have not been in Birmingham. Including Green Acres Middle School, the number of Birmingham City Schools which have hosted the Choice Bus can be counted on one hand.
Stewart, who has personally spoken to more than 52,000 people since starting the foundation, insisted he is too busy to be bothered by the fact that few city students have seen the bus. But he would like, he said, to change that.
Birmingham does have a problem that the Choice Bus is designed to combat: A high dropout rate.
According to the Alabama State Department of Education, the high school dropout rate in Birmingham City Schools as of 2013 is 34 percent overall. Of the seven high schools in the city, Parker has the highest dropout rate at 45 percent, while Ramsay reports the lowest: just 1 percent.
In contrast, Jefferson County has, according to ALSDE figures, a 17 percent dropout rate. Expressed in the positive terms of graduation rates, 83 percent of Jefferson County system students graduate while only 66 percent of BCS students do. Shelby County has a 91 percent graduation rate, meaning that only 9 percent of the students who start high school don’t finish.
The bus from heaven
Stewart doesn’t take full credit for the idea behind the Choice Bus. “The Mattie C. Stewart Foundation came into being not by Shelley Stewart, but by people speaking from the grave, if you will,” he said. “And when I say people speaking from the grave I mean there were people who I happen to have met in death row and life without parole — who were serving time in the prison system in Alabama.”
Back in 2001, Stewart began speaking, by invitation, at several Alabama state prisons. By 2003 he had met and hit it off with prisoners on death row at Holman Correctional Facility. “I agreed to speak out on the yard. It was very, very cold,” he recalled.
“And these inmates came out and I spoke with them. And then they demanded that they wanted photographs with me. … They all gathered around me. There were like four or five dozen just gathered around me taking pictures with me.”
In 2005, when he was visiting, Stewart was invited to tour the prison. “And I went at the request of the inmates, and the guards, and the warden, and the chaplain. I walked the halls, and I went into death row and those guys — I was given permission to talk with them.”
He asked men who were condemned to die what message they would want to leave behind for the world. One after another, they told him the message was that kids should stay in school and get their education. Stewart said he heard much the same when he visited Julia B. Tutwiler, the women’s prison.
The following year he went back to film a public service announcement to share that message, but wound up instead creating a 26-minute documentary which came to be called InsideOut. That film, released in 2007, has been shown in 49 states and Canada and viewed by some 15 million students, Stewart said.
But when he finished the documentary, he said, something strange happened that eventually led to the creation of the bus.
Prison officials, when looking at InsideOut, chided Stewart for failing to get permission to use a school bus on prison property. Stewart said he didn’t know what they were talking about. But when he reviewed the documentary, there he was at the end waving at a passing school bus which appeared to have been coming from out of the woods.
He said that correctional officials had surveillance tape showing the bus coming out of the woods, but nothing showing how it got there. And, Stewart said, they insisted there was no reason and nothing back in the woods to explain how or why a school bus would have been there.
“Anyway,” he said, “They call it ‘the bus from heaven.’”
A year later, the appearance of the mysterious bus led Stewart to an idea. He took a tape measure to a school bus and determined that the width of the bus is the same as the width of a prison cell. He subsequently designed the Choice Bus, which features seats turned backward to face the rear, enabling students to first watch a video presentation, and then see and walk into a prison cell.
Last week, while two Choice Buses visited schools in Georgia, the one in Alabama made stops at a school in Midfield, then Green Acres Middle School in Birmingham, before heading south to Wadley near Auburn. “We have a 100 percent ask-back rate,” said Lynn Smelley, program manager for the Mattie C. Stewart Foundation. Every school the bus visits wants it to come back.
The message presented at the Choice Bus is always the same. The narration by the presenters takes students into the lives of Stewart himself, to the lives of prisoners depicted in the video, and back to their own lives.
“He didn’t have a toothbrush. He didn’t have a hair comb,” presenter Chris Rice told Green Acres students about Stewart (whose harsh upbringing is detailed in his book Mattie C.’s Boy). “He was living in a horse stable. He didn’t have any place to wash his clothes. He didn’t have a place to wash his body. So when he got to school, what do you guys think happened to him?” Rice asked.
“Bullied,” one boy said.
“He got bullied,” Rice confirmed. “He got picked on. You know, he thought about dropping out of school. But he had a teacher who said, ‘Shelley, if you can learn to read, you get a proper education, you can be anything you want to be.’ And today he’s one of the most successful African-American businessmen in the United States. He started this foundation — the Mattie C. Stewart Foundation — in honor of his mother, a few years back.
“We travel across the country talking about positive choices in life and some of the possible negative outcomes of bad choices.”
Those contrasts are made clear in the four-minute video presentation shown on a screen in the back of the bus. “Some kids like school. Others, not so much. A few even think that school is like being in prison. Prison? Really? … Trust me, this ain’t prison,” says a young man in the video, sitting in a school cafeteria. “This is a place that lets you follow your dreams.”
A young woman in a school hallway notes that a person with a high school diploma earns on average $27,000 a year — as opposed to $16,000 a year for a dropout — and that a college graduate can earn up to $1 million more over a lifetime of work “compared to someone who didn’t finish high school.”
“There is one perk to not having a diploma,” the young man says. “You have a good chance at free room and board at a correctional facility of the judge’s choosing. No, I’m not joking. Care to guess at the percentage of prisoners who never finish high school?”
He reveals that the answer is 75 percent. “So staying in school may be the most important choice in your life,” he says.
The video also features the brief accounts of several Alabama inmates. One of them is a 19-year-old named Monique.
“I started out real good. I mean, doing what my parents told me to do, getting into my learning and all that stuff,” she says. “It was just that I caught up with the wrong crowd. If I would have just stayed in my books like I used to be and hung around a better crowd, the crowd that was going to excel and exceed, I wouldn’t be in the predicament I’m in today.
“Now I’m suffering because of one little idiot move that I made. Being in a gang, trying to show out to your friends and all this stuff — it’s not worth it. ‘Cause being here — it’s not fun at all.”
Monique, Rice told the students, was 19 when they shot the video. She had been in prison five years at that point after stabbing another girl in an altercation over a boy. “She was in a gang and her gang convinced her that this other young lady had disrespected her in some way. So Monique decided to act violently against this young lady.
“The young lady went to the hospital,” Rice continued. “When she got out, she graduated high school. Monique lost seven years of her life in a place quite similar to this,” he said, pulling back black curtains and revealing the prison cell, complete with iron bars, a heavy metal gate and bunks already occupied with manikins, lying in for sleeping prisoners. And there is a single bathroom fixture: an exposed metal toilet-sink combination toward the back of the cell.
It’s a striking piece of theater, all designed to hammer home the point: Prisoners have few choices in what they watch on television, on when they get up and go to bed, in what they eat and when. And they have virtually no privacy.
“The sink and the toilet is one piece of metal, meaning the same place a prisoner washes their face [and] brushes their teeth is the same place they go to the bathroom. You guys also see there is no covering around that sink/toilet. So when a prisoner goes to the bathroom, there’s three other people watching everything they do.”
Bringing the Choice Bus to Green Acres is in line with school goals to help adolescents see the need to think carefully about their choices, said Monica Brimage, curriculum specialist at the school.
“Here at our school we have rules, and we explain to them that there are school rules and then there are class rules and then there are civic rules. So the students sometimes feel that there are just too many rules — and they imagine what it would be like to not have any rules,” she said.
“So this Choice Bus gives the students an opportunity to see what it’s like if you break the rules continuously. Dropping out of school is just a nonnegotiable here at Green Acres. So we want to make to make it a scare tactic, but yet to give them choices to let them see this is what happens when you make the right choice, and the right choice is to stay in school.”
The vast majority of kids at the 325-student school went through the bus, especially the 6th graders, said Dr. Willie Goldsmith, principal at Green Acres. “It’s the right fit for our school,” he said.
“We’re a middle school, and middle school, of course, is about experiences. We’re also a middle school that happens to be in a low-income area, and I’ve always believed that life is choice-driven. A lot of our kids have been availed of a lot of opportunities. It’s all about the choices that you make. That’s what we talk about every day. It’s important to have academics, but also you need to teach about culture. …
“A lot of them feel like they’re not in control,” Goldsmith continued. “But you do control everything about yourself. … We teach how the choices that you make will dictate what you do in the future and that life is a totally choice-driven thing. You got the narrow gate, you got the wide gate, if you go Biblical terms. You can go by the Word or you can go by life in general. It’s just one way that we teach about culture.”
In the end, the presenters at the bus give students a pledge card designed to remind them of what they’ve seen and of the goals they have in life. Brimage said teachers have plans to reinforce the goals the students write on the cards to keep the lesson about staying in school freshly on their minds.
Judging by the nervous laughter and the wide-eyed expressions of some Green Acres Middle School students, the visit of the Choice Bus got their attention. “It was a great experience for myself and also for my children,” said 6th grade social studies teacher Lucristia Holifield.
Recently, their class read the Scholastic book Life and Death: Some decisions are just that important, which concerns two men, both named Wes Moore — one of whom went to college and the other of whom went to prison — and a woman named Maria Reyes, who grew up in a gang, but made a decision that led her away from that life and into college and a different, more successful path.
“So it’s all about making the right choice,” Holifield said. “Make the right decision you’re going to go to college. Make the wrong decision, you’re going to end up in jail. The most important thing my children learned…was that most of the people in prison can’t read. 75 percent cannot read. They tell me now, ‘We understand why you’re on us so hard to be good readers, because we don’t want to end up [like that].’”
Ciele Williams, a Green Acres 8th grader, said the bus made something clear. “Hanging around the wrong people and making the wrong decisions can get my life taken away from me, and I can miss out on a lot of opportunities. If I stay on the right track, and keep my mind where it should be, I can be successful and achieve my dream.”