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. …