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Ohio Helps Welfare Mothers Finish School

New study shows that states can target assistance to young teenage parents and encourage most to stay in high school

THE high school students in Bonnie Beckman's early afternoon class are discussing today's assignment: to guess the proper fairy tale from an oblique headline. But conversation quickly moves from their views of the fairy tales to talk about whose child likes what story.

"My son likes that book: `The People in the Neighborhood.' "

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"My oldest son - his father's in jail."

"When are you due?" Ms. Beckman asks a pregnant teen at one point. "June? And you are going to the prom in May?"

So it goes with some of America's most disadvantaged youths - teenage parents. A look at the statistics shows that many of them are drifting toward failure.

They are among the most likely students to drop out of school. From there, it's a short step to long-term welfare dependence. More than half of all welfare households are headed by women who first gave birth before they were 20. Total public costs to support them: nearly $22 billion a year.

A three-year-old program here in Ohio, however, is throwing them a lifeline. And it can help them swim against the tide, according to a report released yesterday.

"We were somewhat surprised by how well it seems to be working," says Dan Bloom, lead author of a new study of the program from the respected Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC). "The evidence shows that it does have some effect on people's school enrollment and attendance behavior."

The MDRC study found that 61.3 percent of teens already in school continued to attend classes when they were eligible for the Ohio program, called LEAP (Learning, Earning, and Parenting). That's a significant jump over those students who were not made eligible for LEAP, of whom only 51.1 percent continued on. The gap was even wider for teens who had already dropped out. With LEAP, 46.8 percent came back to school at some point during the year. Without it, only 33.4 percent went back.

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These results are the most concrete evidence so far that states can target help to young welfare parents and keep more of them in school. The hope is that more schooling will allow these youngsters to move off welfare rolls and into jobs. Six-year evaluation

It's too early to tell whether that's happening in Ohio, Mr. Bloom says. The MDRC plans to find that out in the next phase of its six-year evaluation of the program. The social research group was founded by the Ford Foundation and a consortium of federal agencies to test such things.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect about LEAP is that it pays teenage parents to stay in school. Those who miss no more than two school days a month (without a valid excuse) get an extra $62 in their monthly welfare check. Those who don't get docked $62. The bonuses and sanctions can play an important role in a welfare family's income, since a mother with one child typically receives $274 a month.

The program is mandatory for every Ohio teen parent who has custody of a child, is on welfare, and does not have a high school diploma or equivalent degree. The cost is relatively low - about $300 per teenager per year. Some 20,000 teens have passed through LEAP since the program started in 1989.

Several other states, such as Maryland and Virginia, are experimenting with similar programs that offer financial incentives for school attendance.

One of the states with the longest experience with such incentives is Wisconsin. Its Learnfare program, also started in 1989, docks the welfare check of parents if their children don't go to school. There are no bonuses. Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson (R) wants to expand the program to cover elementary as well as high school students. Sanctions alone hit

The idea of using sanctions without rewards has come under fire. One study showed that attendance had improved for some of the students, but critics have charged that the study was flawed. Even President Clinton has criticized the program for helping too few students.

"Sanctions have been tried and they haven't exactly worked," says Mary Ware, project manager for VITAL (Virginia Incentive to Advanced Learning). So Virginia is trying the other end of the spectrum in its three-city pilot program, which has no sanctions. Recipients get around $25 a month extra if they meet the goals they set with their coordinators, which includes good school attendance for their children.

Although the financial incentives receive the most public attention, they may not be the key to success. Even with LEAP bonuses and sanctions, just over half of the teenage dropouts did not return to school.

"What we are finding is that the real incentive is the support of the coordinators," says Ms. Ware in Virginia.

In addition to bonuses, teens in the LEAP program also get transportation assistance, child care, and case managers, who keep an eye on their students and encourage them to stay in school. This human intervention may be just as important as the financial incentives.

"For the ones who have very good LEAP workers, it's wonderful," Ms. Beckman says about the program. "It depends on LEAP workers."

Perhaps that result shouldn't be so surprising. Financial challenges are just one of many obstacles these teenage parents face.

Antoinette Daniels is a 19-year-old mother and LEAP recipient. She admits she has, in her words, "messed up" in the past. "I didn't get pregnant because my mother didn't love me" or some other psychological need, she says. "I got pregnant because I was curious."

Her school attendance has been checkered. LEAP bonuses have given way to LEAP sanctions for periods when she dropped out to care for her son or, once, out of "sheer laziness."

Now back in school, she has high hopes of going on to college in the field of computers, or accounting. "I plan on making it to the top," she says. "I plan on being more than I am."

Miss Daniels is pregnant with her second child.

Corethea Sutton has had a harder time. Her father is in Denver; her mother, a crack cocaine addict, is presumably in Tennessee.

"I wanted to go back to school," she says of the time she lived with her mother, but most of their money went to feed her mother's habit. "If the money was gone, I couldn't get bus fare to go to school."

Miss Sutton now receives welfare directly - $606 a month to care for her two sons and to serve as guardian for her younger sister. That includes her $62 LEAP bonus for good attendance. She is waiting for an acceptance letter from the University of Cincinnati, where she hopes to train to become a middle school teacher.

"I refuse to be a statistic," Sutton says of her welfare status. "It's a cycle. And I want to be a role model for my two sons."

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