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Inmates make documentary to keep students in school

By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — "Inside Out," which debuts Friday, is getting the kind of reviews that movie producers love to quote in their ads.

State Corrections Commissioner Richard Allen calls it "stunning."

Alabama school Superintendent Joe Morton calls it "powerful."

It's "the best I've ever seen," says Anne Hancock, regional representative for the U.S. Department of Education.

"Inside Out" is a documentary in which Alabama prison inmates talk about dropping out of school and explain how the lack of education affected their lives. The goal of the documentary — and of the inmates interviewed — is to keep Alabama students in school until they graduate.

Gov. Bob Riley calls "Inside Out" a "critically valuable teaching tool and a deterrent to crime."

He has declared Friday as "Dropout Awareness Day" and is encouraging schools throughout the state to show the free documentary to their students. Then he wants educators to use a teacher's guide prepared by the state Department of Education to discuss the documentary with their students.

"Inside Out" is the first work of the Birmingham-based Mattie B. Stewart Foundation. Longtime Birmingham radio personality Shelley Stewart created the foundation to honor his mother, and its sole purpose is to get more students to finish high school.

The state Department of Corrections welcomed Stewart and his camera into Alabama prisons earlier this year because about 60 percent of Alabama's inmates didn't finish high school. Studies have shown that adults who didn't finish high school make less money and are more likely to get into trouble than those who did get degrees.

Personal project

Stewart, 73, is known today for the 54 years he spent on Birmingham radio and for founding a successful Birmingham ad agency. But his life could have turned out much different.

When he was 5 years old, his father killed his mother. Stewart was homeless for several years, but a love of reading and some help along the way got him through high school.

His youngest brother wasn't so fortunate. He could read only at the third grade level and he died in a California prison, Stewart said.

To honor his mother and to prevent others from winding up like his brother, Stewart went into prisons to interview inmates. The unscripted program is very emotional, but contains no profanity.

"We think it's appropriate for any age," Morton said at a news conference Monday.

Morton called the documentary "the centerpiece" of the state's plan to prevent school dropouts. The Department of Education has also made $4.4 million in grants to schools to work with students at risk of dropping out and has hired "graduation coaches" in 25 high schools. The coaches, who don't teach, spend their days doing "whatever it takes to get every student to graduate," Morton said.

Hancock said that nationwide, three out of every 10 minority school students will drop out, and when they do it, they have no idea of the ramifications it will have on their lives.

For Hancock, "Inside Out" shows the ramifications.

"It's the best I've ever seen and I've been around a long time," she said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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