For these women, education is providing a path away from welfare

WHEN Elizabeth Forrest was 15 years old and in love, dropping out of school to get married seemed like a good idea. Twenty-two years later, after supporting two children, being laid off, working a few odd jobs, making little money, and eventually turning to welfare for survival, Elizabeth has changed her mind. She has gone back to school.

``Sitting in that welfare office, day after day, I knew I wanted to be doing something else, wanted something different for my kids,'' says Ms. Forrest. Her caseworker told her about the basic-education courses offered through the state's Employment and Training program. ``It seemed like a good way out,'' she says.

Forrest is one of 33,000 adults in Massachusetts to return to school each year and work toward a diploma. Nationwide, 3.1 million adults a year go back to school, says the director of Adult Basic Education (ABE) in Massachusetts, Gale Ewer.

Since January, Forrest, a very expressive woman who's quick to smile, has studied everything from government to consumer economics in the WAITT House in Roxbury section of Boston, one of Massachusetts' 132 ABE institutions. The ``house'' is an aging white clapboard triple decker.

WAITT stands for ``we're all in this together.'' The atmosphere reflects this slogan. A painted rainbow extends over the front doorway. Chalkboards, textbooks, and headsets fill three floors of brightly lit classrooms. Every morning, students are greeted by two instructors, a full-time tutor, a skills assessor, a career counselor, and the WAITT House director, Sister Pauline O'Leary.

More than 60 percent of students in the ABE courses receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Three-quarters of them are women.

Forrest moved to Massachusetts four years ago, after being laid off in the Mississippi shipyard where she had worked as a pipe insulator. She was lured by the state's vibrant economy and the coaxing of relatives. But she found that no one here needed her skills. After separating from her husband, Forrest said she and her children had no choice but to move into an emergency shelter.

``I knew then it was time for a change,'' she says.

After she earns her diploma, Forrest has the choice of going on to skill training, directly into a job, or even on to college. ``I have big goals,'' she says. ``I'd like to get trained in word processing and maybe go to college and study advertising someday.''

Deborah Greene, another WAITT House student, dropped out of school in the 10th grade when she became pregnant. Since then she has been the sole supporter of her seven-year-old daughter.

``The welfare system is not worth the time and aggravation,'' she says vehemently. ``When you are on welfare, kids are mistreated. I feel like two cents when my child is hungry and there is no food to give her.''

Currently no state provides benefits equal to or above the federal poverty level of $9,300 a year, says Barbara Burke-Tatum, associate Education and Training commissioner. The average ABE graduate who takes a full-time job makes $12,800 a year, she says.

That prospect, plus the congenial atmosphere of the program, keeps the women enrolled in ABE hard at their studies.

``I never liked school much before, got held back one year,'' Ms. Greene says. ``But I feel confident [that] this is it. It's the best program for me.'' Although WAITT House is cheerful, the home lives of many of the students are not. Forrest recalls some ``depressing mornings'' after stressful nights. ``I would have to come in and rejuvenate my brain all over again and try to push all the other back,'' she says. ``Sometimes I dread going back home. This a place where you can find solitude.

``They [some neighbors] tell me to drop out. They say I can't make it. When others try to hold me back, I say, `Lord, give me strength, I'm going to make it, I'm going to climb that ladder to success even though they are trying to pull me down.'''

In addition to the regular curriculum, students acquire everyday skills like balancing a checkbook, finding a ZIP code, using a library computer, filling out income tax forms, and writing a r'esum'e.

``A person can have all the education in the world and still have no common sense,'' says Forrest. ``I've learned more about myself and other people. I've learned that I am intelligent, even though others may tell me I'm dumb or crazy.''

``This program gives them credit for what they know as adults,'' says Sister Pauline. ``It is life-skill oriented and gives them the competency to live in society.''

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