State Links Welfare to Schooling

Mississippi encourages those on the dole to earn high school degrees and reenter workforce

IN Mississippi, state officials are not waiting for President Clinton's long-promised welfare reform. They are forging ahead with their own mandatory program, including sanctions for anyone who refuses to participate.

Project LEAP (Learn, Earn, and Prosper) - an education program -

began 15 months ago and is now helping more than 3,000 Mississippi welfare recipients get their General Equivalency Diplomas (GED) and reenter the work force. To meet the needs of this largely rural state, the University of Mississippi broadcasts TV classes by satellite to 80 sites around the state.

Welfare recipients are referred to the program by their caseworkers and are required to participate at least 20 hours a week until they find employment. Those who refuse to attend lose a portion of their benefits.

On the Mississippi Gulf Coast, a LEAP site is crowded in the back office of the Gulf Coast Community Action Agency. Some students work on practice tests or work sheets, asking the teacher for help when needed.

In one corner of the cramped classroom, a handful of students watch one of the University of Mississippi lessons - this one on math - on a monitor. At the end of the session, students can dial an 800 number on the classroom phone and ask the teacher questions on the air.

``You learn a lot by watching,'' says LEAP participant Cynthia Acker. ``I missed out on all this 15 years ago,'' she says, explaining that she dropped out of school in ninth grade when she got pregnant with the first of two children. ``I'm just trying to get my GED so I can move on to bigger and better things.''

That's the goal for most LEAP students. Behind the teacher's desk is the ``Wall of Fame,'' displaying the diplomas of nine students who have earned the GED since September. ``Everybody who comes in here is at a different level academically, so we individualize instruction,'' says J.C. Barrett, the local instructor at this LEAP site. ``We have nonreaders all the way through people who have completed 11th grade - and everything in between. They all have an education in the school of hard knocks and the university of life.''

Ninety-eight percent of LEAP participants are African-American women with two or more children. Their average age is 32. About 60 percent arrive unable to read above the fourth-grade level, says Edwin Meek, founder of the program. ``So we don't expect miraculous changes,'' he says. ``You can't expect to learn to read, get a GED, get a job, and get off welfare in six months.''

But the instruction offers an avenue for reentry into the world of education. Students whose needs fit with the lessons of the day on TV are encouraged to participate while others receive one-on-one instruction, Dr. Barrett says.

The satellite courses provide an added element of camaraderie from one end of the state to the other, says Athalia Piernas, deputy director of the Gulf Coast Community Action Agency. ``It's an outside stimulus that comes in and tries to show them that there are a whole lot of people out there in the same boat that they're in,'' she says.

``Our experience in LEAP so far has been that because the LEAP class is different - a little more fun and exciting than a traditional class - our participation rate is higher,'' Mr. Meek says. Students who stick with the program for the first 50 hours generally stay until they earn the GED, he adds. But some students make it clear they would rather be somewhere else. ``They just forced me in here,'' complains Charles Lepine, a father of two who has been out of work for two years. ``I'm only coming here because they told me I had to.''

Mr. Lepine dropped out of school in 11th grade and worked as a heavy-equipment mechanic. But he was unable to keep the job after an injury. ``I need the GED to get some light work,'' he says. ``For the field I was in before I didn't need it.''

But Lepine disagrees with the notion of cutting someone's welfare benefits for not participating in an education program. ``They're telling you that if you don't come here, you'll be homeless or starving to death,'' he says.

Helen Cuvas admits that she too did not like the idea of coming here at first. ``I wouldn't have come in at all if they hadn't said I had to do it,'' says the mother of six children who range in age from 25 to 11. ``But now I'm glad I did come. It's made a whole lot of difference.'' Ms. Cuvas is almost ready to take the GED test and has plans to go to work as soon as possible. She hopes to get a job with one of the many casinos opening up in the area.

But good-paying jobs are hard to find in much of Mississippi, even for those with a high-school degree. ``If we had more jobs that paid $6 to $10 an hour for GED recipients, we would move faster,'' Meek says.

But he encourages students to take whatever job they can find. ``What we say to our students is: `That's a steppingstone. Take that job. Get out of the quagmire of public assistance. That's a beginning point.' ''

The national movement to reform welfare and make recipients accountable is on the right track, Meek says.

``Our program has clearly demonstrated that a large number of people just need an extra push to get back into the system,'' he says.

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