State Links Welfare to Schooling Mississippi Encourages Those on the Dole to Earn High School Degrees and Reenter Workforce Series: Unemployed Mississippians Jackie Robichaux (R.) and Charles Lepine Attend a Math Class in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. Mr. Lepine Says, `I'm Only Coming Here Because They Told Me I Had to.', PHOTOS BY MELANIE STETSON FREEMAN - STAFF

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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. …