Students at McDuffie County's new alternative school went on an unusual field trip recently. It was so successful, that Principal Cecil Strong said he'd like to make it an annual outing.
Seven young men and four teachers from McDuffie Achievement Center went to Augusta State Medical Prison, where they were taken on a tour by the warden and a guard through the prison, yard and processing room.
"I thought prison would compare with what I've seen on TV, but it was nothing at all like TV," said junior Brandon Hobbs. "They are too real for TV. It made me not want to go there ever. It makes me think before I act."
That was the response school officials were aiming for.
"We wanted it to be more than a shocking, awe-factor. We told the students the reason you are here (MAC) is credit recovery. So, don't let anything outside of school get you off track," said MAC counselor Murtavius Miller.
Not only did they walk the corridors of the prison, the students also had the opportunity to talk with prisoners. Mr. Miller said they quickly learned the meaning behind the fad of wearing one's pants below the waist to reveal underwear. Although it is commonly said the fad comes from prisoners not being issued belts, the practice actually is an invitation for homosexual acts.
"When they learned the meaning, it made a big difference the very next day, not only with how they were dressed when they came to school, but with their attitudes," Mr. Miller said, adding that some students even started asking for more school work.
Brandon said he couldn't help but notice that most of the inmates lacked an education. He learned that only 25 percent had a high school education, which they received after being incarcerated.
"So, I learned that not having an education increases your chances of being in prison," he said.
Most students at the alternative school are there either for credit recovery because they are behind academically, or as a result of tribunal disciplinary action. Mr. Strong said the intent of the MAC program is to work on the students' social skills as well as their academics. He said many of the students come from homes where they are unsupervised and have little positive interaction with adults.
The field trip to the prison went along with the school's goal of teaching responsible decision making and how choices made early in life affect one's entire life.
"The students saw in prison people who had made a bad decision and are now serving life sentences. They saw that there was no freedom at all. The prisoners couldn't go to the bathroom unless somebody told them when they could. The prisoners talked about gangs, and the gang can't help you when you're in prison. So, you have to learn self-preservation. We are teaching not only knowledge, but wisdom to make better decisions."
Mr. Miller said the prisoners spoke freely to the students, answering any question, and talked about gangs, mistakes and the definition of a friend.
"It turned the light on in my head," said sophomore Divoris McGahee. "I realized I had too much to lose. Now, I want to go to college. I want to be a construction worker or maybe an architect ... Everybody needs to just stay out of prison and do their work so they can get back to regular school. That's what I think. They need to just do the right thing."
Mr. Miller said Divoris is on track to return to Thomson High School at the end of this semester in December.
Inmates aren't the only people to influence the students recently. Mr. Strong said he invites a person in the community weekly to speak about how academic success pays dividends later. Recent speakers include: Thomson's Mayor-Pro-Tem Alton Bentley, McDuffie sheriff's Deputy Barry Whitfield and McDuffie County Probate Judge Valerie Burley.
Even though he'll soon be graduating from high school, Brandon said what he's hearing is new to him.
"We need to have more positive role models like Mr. Jones (Detric Jones, MAC security officer), Mr. Strong and Mr. Miller in the community," he said. "It would help our youth. Usually, people talk to us like we are already on the wrong path, but here (MAC), they try to keep you from the wrong path."
The 57 students at McDuffie Achievement Center have completed over 40 half-unit courses since the start of school, according to Lynn Cato, Thomson High's assistant principal in curriculum and instruction. "That's remarkable!" she wrote in an e-mail.