Teens enter a familiar environment, walking through the front door of a school bus. They take their seats and view an interactive 25-minute presentation. But when the flat-screen TV and black curtain are pushed to the side, teens face the stark reality that could be their future—if they drop out of school.
Students must exit the bus through a full-scale prison cell. A stainless-steel toilet juts out of the wall on one side of the cell, and a mannequin lies just inches from the toilet in a cot on the other wall. The cell door clangs shut behind them.
"You can ruin your life, and you haven't barely gotten through the door of the high school."
That's the lesson 15-year-old Alexis Johnson, a freshman at Douglas County High School, learned today from a class visit to the Choice Bus.
She has her sights set on law school someday but said the bus experience will be a clear message for some of her classmates.
"Some freshmen need it more than others," she said. "But they'll get the message because it's visual. Seeing it means a lot more than just hearing it."
“You can watch their eyes and see the ones who are quite deeply affected. A large number of children stay afterward and talk about jobs and their opportunities.”
It is estimated that less than three-quarters of students who enter the ninth grade will graduate, leaving 1.2 million dropouts each year, according to Communities in Schools, a national dropout prevention organization.
The Georgia Department of Education announced this morning that, under new national calculation standards, the state’s graduation rate dropped from more than 80 percent to 67.4 percent.
"We know if a student is going to drop out of school today, they usually make that decision in the ninth grade," said Lisa Printup, the BRIDGES coach at DCHS. "We want them to understand the importance of making good decisions and prepare them for the future."
Chet Pennock, the lead presenter of the program, said: "The bus is wildly successful. You can watch their eyes and see the ones who are quite deeply affected. A large number of children stay afterward and talk about jobs and their opportunities.”
During the presentation, students are told that 75 percent of prisoners are high school dropouts. College graduates earn $1 million more over a lifetime than do high school dropouts, according to the Mattie C. Stewart Foundation, sponsor of the Choice Bus. The foundation is a national nonprofit dedicated to reducing dropout rates.
The foundation also produced the groundbreaking InsideOut documentary, which features inmates who encourage youths to get an education.
After spending all day today at DCHS, the Choice Bus will be at Alexander High School on Wednesday for 10th-graders and Lithia Springs High School on Thursday for ninth-graders. This is the first year the bus has visited DCHS, but it’s the second consecutive year for the other two schools.
Pennock said his is one of three buses that travel across the nation. More than 1 million students have been through the bus since 2008. “We give them the tools to increase their graduation rate."
This article is part of "Dispatches: The Changing American Dream," our ongoing series about how people in Douglasville are adapting to the challenges of life in the 21st century. You can find more Dispatches from across the country at The Huffington Post.