Magazine article Techniques

The Way Out

Magazine article Techniques

The Way Out

Article excerpt

After a decade on welfare, Donnie Dennis became a nurse--and one of many success stories at Great Plains Technology Center. The Oklahoma school is part of a state network that is moving welfare recipients out of poverty through career and technical education.

"Can't is not an option." Donnie Dennis, a licensed practical nurse in Lawton, Okla., says those are words to live by. She voices them often these days--with a tone of courage and conviction she's never had before. After collecting welfare for 10 years, Dennis now has found a profession she loves.

Her route out of public assistance and into self-sufficiency came through the licensed practical nursing (LPN) curriculum at Great Plains Technology Center, also in Lawton.

To Dennis, the school's impact on her life is clear and simple: "They made me feel like I can do anything."

The LPN program is one of 25 career and technical adult education courses offered at Great Plains. The school is part of LINC (Linking Individuals to New Careers), a welfare-to-work initiative that partners the Oklahoma Department of Human Services with the state's Department of Vocational and Technical Education to provide job training for people receiving TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) benefits. Great Plains is one of 20 career tech schools that receive state funds to run programs like LINC.

So when her case worker first told Dennis about LINC in 1997, Dennis saw it "as my way out, and I was going to grab it with both hands."

She remembers well the days when she was receiving assistance, struggling to make ends meet for herself and her three children on only $238 per month. "Think of the struggle. I had to cover rent and utilities, and still buy food and clothes," she says. "Thank God I never had to sell drugs or anything to make ends meet. But it was definitely a hard experience. It did a number on my credit. It's a relief not to have to worry about that anymore."

Through hard work and determination she completed the Great Plains LPN program and landed a job with Quality Enterprises of Lawton, a medical facility that treats people with developmental problems and disabilities. And her progress hasn't stopped there--she's 18 months from a registered nursing degree.

Dennis is not LINC's only success story. In its first year, the program had the highest job placement rate of any welfare-to-work program in Oklahoma. With results like those, LINC sets an example for adult education and training programs that want to kickstart their efforts in the new millennium.

Training for the future

LINC's efforts are rooted in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, signed by President Bill Clinton in August 1996. The law gave states block grants to start or expand training programs for welfare recipients, but it also limited the amount of time those students could receive welfare benefits.

Millions of TANF recipients faced a new reality: get sufficient job training, learn workplace skills and find a job all within two years--or risk losing benefits altogether. It was a tall order for many welfare recipients who had few, if any, employable skills.

Oklahoma officials moved swiftly, investing $4.8 million to fund TANF training programs at 20 vo-tech schools. Recipients, referred by their case workers to the nearest program, can count their year of career and technical education as work under the new laws. The new students must commit to 30 hours of training each week, but the state pays all expenses--tuition, books and other fees.

Each vo-tech school has its own yearly contract with the state that includes a budget and enrollment caps. Great Plains accepts 100 welfare-to-work students each year, the maximum allowed.

Before they can enroll, potential students take a series of tests to measure their academic skills, aptitude and interests. …

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