The Ab Cs Of Coaxing Teen Mothers Back To School

After Sabrina Osborne gave birth to twins in 1989, high school just didn't seem very important. So Osborne, then 18, dropped out of school and went on welfare. A year later, caseworkers in Elyria, Ohio, urged her to get her diploma. Although she wanted to go back, Osborne thought she would feel out of place with younger classmates. But when caseworkers found her an apartment, registered her for class, and paid for her transportation, she swallowed her pride and returned. "I wouldn't have gone back without the program," says Osborne, who graduated in May and recently had her third child.

Osborne's success story is the result of an innovative Ohio program aimed at helping one of the hardest-to-reach groups on welfare: teenage mothers who are dropouts. The two-year-old initiative, called Learning, Earning & Parenting (LEAP), docks teen mothers $62, or 20% of their monthly welfare check, if they don't attend school regularly. However, it also pays a $62 bonus to those who miss fewer than four days a month. Although detailed results aren't yet in, LEAP's initial experience suggests that it could be working--a crucial step in improving work skills and reducing time on welfare. "This is a unique program that seems to be having an effect on attendance rates," says David A. Long, who just completed an initial study of LEAP for Manpower Demonstration Research Corp. (MDRC), which analyzes welfare programs.

TOUGH NUT. The Ohio experiment may serve as a model for other states. Studies show that teenage parents are the group most likely to wind up as hard-core welfare recipients: Fully one-third stay on the dole for a decade once they join. Overall, they run up more than $21 billion a year in welfare, food stamps, and medicaid expenses, according to a study by the Center for Population Options, a nonprofit group in Washington.

LEAP is under close scrutiny in part because of the problems that have plagued other such efforts. The most controversial attempt was in Wisconsin, where Governor Tommy G. Thompson in 1988 launched a program called Learnfare that cuts monthly welfare checks by up to $190 for teens who don't go to school. This punitive approach has prompted a spate of lawsuits from teens and their parents, and a judge temporarily suspended Learnfare last year until its procedures were improved.

In contrast to Learnfare, LEAP is going smoothly. Although its sanction provision could be seen as punitive, too, the program's directors think that LEAP may be more acceptable because it also rewards students for attending school regularly.

More important, say welfare experts, is the support LEAP provides. Caseworkers counsel teen mothers on how to deal with the problems of attending school and raising a child. The program also provides child-care facilities as well as transportation assistance. Critics say that kind of help is LEAP's crucial advantage over Learnfare. "Sixty-two dollars once a month isn't enough to motivate anyone one way or another," says Joel Rabb, the head of welfare reform at the Ohio Human Services Dept.

Teen mothers agree. Tiandre Butler, who just turned 18, enrolled in LEAP last year after her son, Christopher, was born. She wakes up at 4:30 a.m. so she and Christopher can get to Cleveland's West Technical High School on time. LEAP pays for the two city buses they have to take--they can't ride the school bus because its insurance doesn't cover babies. The program also set up a child-care center at school where Butler leaves her son. And the LEAP counselor gives her advice on how to deal with transportation and other problems. "It helps you figure out if you want to go or quit school," says Butler.

UNHELPFUL. Still, some experts wonder if Ohio's entire bonus-and-sanction system isn't largely irrelevant. About 25% of the 10,000 teens in LEAP have had their grants cut. A similar number are collecting the bonus. Ohio won't know why teen mothers fall into each group until the MDRC completes its analysis in 1993. But early indications are that most of the mothers being penalized haven't gone back to school at all--and that they never will.

If so, both sanctions and rewards may be unhelpful, says Mark Greenberg, a lawyer at Washington's Center for Law & Social Policy. Instead, "we need to find out why people don't return to their schools and develop alternatives that better fit their needs," he says.

LEAP is a novel way to coax teenagers back to school. Of course, it's still a big jump from there to a secure job. But if LEAP can help some teen mothers to start down that road, other states may want to follow Ohio's lead.