This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
When Elizabeth Delorbe heard about a bus coming to the school for her and the other freshmen at Jules Mastbaum Technical School in North Philadelphia, she thought they were going on a field trip.
“I thought they were going to take us somewhere,” said Delorbe, 15.
In a way, she was right.
Delorbe and the rest of the freshman class at Mastbaum boarded that bus,and toured part of a prison without ever leaving the city block.
“[It was] scary,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to be living there my whole life.”
Delorbe and her classmates were one of several groups of students, from more than 1,000 schools across the country, to board the Choice Bus for a lesson about the consequences of dropping out of high school.
Painted to resemble a school bus in the front, yellow with black lettering, and a prison bus in the rear, white with blue lettering and bars on the windows, the Choice Bus tours the country visiting schools to show students the life that may await them if they drop out of school.
It is a program started by the Mattie C. Stewart Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Birmingham, Ala. dedicated to reducing the nation’s dropout rate. State Farm insurance company sponsored the visit to Mastbaum and four other high schools in the District: Kensington, Roxborough, South Philadelphia, and Furness.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, as of 2015, the national dropout rate was 5.9 percent. And researchers for the Mattie C. Stewart Foundation have found that high school dropouts will make $1 million less than their college graduate peers over their working lives, and are six times as likely to go to prison than high school graduates.
Stats such as these have been presented on the Choice Bus to over 2 million students in 21 states as far west as Texas, and as far north as upstate New York.
Anthony Williams, a presenter on the Choice Bus, said urging students to make good decisions is an important part of their message, but ultimately they want to drive home the importance of staying in school.
“The main thing we want to encourage students to do is, No.1, graduate, No. 2, go further in education,” Williams said.
The inside of the bus correlates to the outside, with the front dedicated to school, and the rear dedicated to prison. The front remains a school bus, with 12 seats for two people each organized in rows of six, and is used as a classroom.
Here, lead presenter Chet Pennock stood in front of a black velvet curtain that concealed the rear of the bus, and played a video of prison inmates warning students of the dangers of abandoning their education.
Pennock then continued the message with a short lecture about the perils of dropping out, and encouraged students to start thinking about their future now, to prepare themselves for important decisions to come.
“It’s important you start thinking about it now,” Pennock said. “Because now that you’re in the 9th grade, there aren’t any do-overs now. Everything’s getting real permanent. Everything you’re doing now is going to affect your whole life.”
Afterward, Pennock opened the curtain behind him to reveal a replica of a prison cell, complete with actual used, yet clean, fixtures from prison: two beds, one over the other, suspended from the wall, with blankets covering mannequins; a steel sink, and, yes, a steel toilet, all behind metal bars.
The students entered the cell in small groups and looked around to get a feel for what life could be like in a prison cell.
“I sat down and I thought they were only going to talk to us,” said Delorbe. “I didn’t think they were going to show us [a prison cell.]”
As they exited, the driver greeted them with 4 X 6 cards bearing stats from the presentation on one side and a pledge on the other.
“We’re trying to give them some “good information about what they can do while they’re in school,” said James Lawshe, driver of the Choice Bus. “The big thing is, finish high school. Then we want them to bump it up a notch if they can.”
And finally, before going back to class, the freshmen students signed a banner that had The Choice Is Mine printed above a school bus covered in an inspirational message about staying in school. The banner will be presented at their graduation in 2020.
Mastbaum principal Dave Bowman said the underlying message from the Choice Bus can keep students out of harms way.
“It’s all about choice,” said Bowman. “It’s a good choice or not. So we really simplify that and this is especially important for 9th graders who will be involved in CTE shops where they have to be well-behaved because of safety concerns.”
This isn’t the first time the Choice Bus made a stop at Mastbaum. The class of 2017 boarded the bus back in 2013. Senior Leonardo Santiago was among the freshmen presentation, and he said it helped him stay on track.
Now, Santiago, an automotive student, wants to go to Universal Technical Institute to continue in that field. He said he has been filling out scholarship and grant applications, as well.
“I took it into consideration and I made my own choices by that,” he said. “I looked around and talked to more people and it made more [sense.]”