Teenage Mothers Model Program in Ohio Flunks

Bill Alexander
January 1, 1998
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Without warning, Lawrence Span, coordinator of the Franklin County Department of Human Services' Learning, Earning and Parenting (LEAP) program pulled his on-site youth workers out of eight Columbus, Ohio high schools in mid-November until further notice.

Span did not specify why except to say that he needed the workers for other things. But left high and dry were teen welfare mothers participating in a nationally touted program grounded on youth worker counseling, day care and transportation assistance crucial to helping the teens graduate from high school and, hopefully, obtain a good job.

LEAP's "tough love" approach rewards participants in 88 counties with a $62 bonus added to a welfare check for good monthly attendance and subtracts the same amount from checks of those who skip classes or drop out.

The program is praised by the D.C.-based American Youth Policy Forum in its recently published “Compendium of Evaluations of Youth Programs” as a best practice effort that works.

But, Span's action is just the latest indication of how Ohio's novel eight-year-old "bonus-and-sanction" LEAP effort, frequently cited by President Bill Clinton as one that should be followed in other states, is experiencing bumpy times.

'No Measurable Impact'

Adding to the program's woes, a mostly public-funded $3.4 million study by the New York City-based Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC) released last summer, reports that LEAP has had no measurable impact on high school graduation rates — except for a small percentage increase in Cleveland where "enhanced services" such as in-school child care centers and case management, parenting skills instruction and community-based outreach programs were available.

But Cleveland's graduation rate, even with LEAP, was only 35 percent, about half the rate for the rest of the state. The study added that far more students were penalized for missing class than received bonuses for outstanding performances.

The kids themselves are the $21.6-million program's harshest critics. They argue that, although a good idea, it was poorly administered. Not enough consideration was given to the demands of young babies when penalizing the mothers for missing classes. And often the curriculum did not prepare students for the mandatory ninth grade proficiency test.
A LEAP administrator has admitted that Cleveland's embattled school board "has not been helpful" in getting city schools to cooperate with youth workers in implementing LEAP's goals.

Dropouts Now Ignored

All 88 of the state's counties administer the program through their individually run Department of Human Services (DHS) agency with varying degrees of cooperation from their local school system. The state office oversees to ensure that the basic guidelines of the program are maintained.

With a current budget that tripled in six years to $21.4 million, some 10,106 teens were enrolled in the program as of March 1996. Between 1991 and 1996, some 70,535 teens have been identified as LEAP-eligible. Of that number, 45 percent enrolled in school. Almost 70 percent of the teens are 17- to 18-years-old, and 80 percent have one child, making them eligible for a $274 monthly welfare check.

"With the current uproar over getting people off the rolls, we're no longer spending the extra time and money to look for teen mothers who have dropped out [of school]," argues Leonard Tetlak, the Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) LEAP coordinator. In short, there is "no specific outreach," he says, now designed for this population — a former prime target of LEAP's originators.

Those who do graduate "we try to put into jobs," says Tetlak, "but they're not necessarily good jobs. They pay about as much as welfare and keep them pretty much, as before, on the cusp."

Policies in Flux

Students, workers and the MDRC study complain that LEAP has a number of administrative failings:

  • LEAP policies, as of now, are bobbling in flux from county to county: Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) has dropped its "enhanced services" approach and instituted a "six-months-of-sanctions-and-you're-off-the-rolls-policy" that applies to all LEAP-eligible teens, whether they are participating in the program or not.
  • Teen-mother students complain that the state's mandatory ninth-grade proficiency test that must be passed before high school graduation (three tries allowed per year) bears no relation to subjects taught in inner-city schools. Instituted two years after LEAP was started, the test is single-handedly responsible for mass failures and a huge drop-out rate, the students claim.
  • Youth workers argue the workload is too heavy (some must administer the needs of up to 150 students) and say school officials often don't provide the monthly school attendance reports needed to determine who gets bonuses or sanctions.
  • The MDRC study points out that "little is done to encourage good academic performance in class" or, indeed, to find out if the LEAP participant "is present at individual classes during the school day." And the three-year MDRC study of LEAP participants compared to a control group of similar teens, who did not participate in LEAP, showed that the program did not affect the number of second pregnancies.
  • Teen mothers complain of dangerous conditions at some schools that caused them to drop out of the program.

Missed Connection?

Looking back, the man credited as the primary LEAP architect, Paul Offner, then DHS deputy director, says, "A [state] legislative committee and [DHS] should have gone back in and looked at the program. We know we could have reduced the three-month lag time [that still exists] before a bonus shows up in the check. The kid doesn't make the connection with the bonus and attending school."

"It is a work in progress. We didn't foresee the pressures that the welfare reform law, with its time-line cutoffs for getting people off the rolls, would have on the program. It represents yet another barrier. No one knows how [LEAP] will impact on young families," says Judith Simpson, senior program officer for the Cleveland-based George Gund Foundation, one of the original funders.

In 1989, Gund, along with BP America and the Cleveland Foundation, bought Offner's idea to target teen mothers using incentives and penalties, combined with case management and support services, as a means to promote school attendance and completion. The three foundations kicked in over $500,000 for "enhancement" services such as day care, along with funds to be used for a separate evaluation of the Cleveland effort. Offner, a former Wisconsin state senator who had worked on that state's Workfare Program and who would later become a key health and welfare legislative aide to Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), convinced the Ohio Legislature to approve a request for a federal waiver that would allow LEAP to tie the size of a welfare grant to a teen mother's school attendance.

As an experimental program, a commitment to an ongoing evaluation was a requirement before federal matching funds could be released. This is where MDRC came on board to track LEAP students and a control group in 12 counties.

In addition to the monthly bonuses, LEAP adds a one-time enrollment bonus of $62, a $62 grade-completion bonus at the end of each school year, plus a $200 bonus for graduation.

"We wanted balance," said Offner, who is now the commissioner of Washington, D.C.'s Commission on Health Care Finance. The program deducts $62 for not enrolling in school and the same amount for exceeding two unexcused absences. "Back then, we thought this was a good example of tough love," says Simpson.

Exasperated Youth

Johannes Bos, co-author of MDRC's final LEAP report, said that during the tracking period he was told by teen mothers "that they felt unsafe returning to schools and uncomfortable going to adult [GED] classes." That was a twin fear that would seem to strike at the heart of the program. But there were other complaints by LEAP participants that were not mentioned in the MDRC study.

"It's so unfair," says Taffy, 17, mother of a year-old child and a sophomore at Cleveland's Glenville High School. "When your child is teething you've got to be there to ease the pain it's experiencing. I can't get an excused absence for that from my doctor...or for the child's fevers or diarrhea."

Since the welfare check goes to her mother, Taffy complains that she never hears about a cash bonus for her good record of monthly attendance. "But I will hear about a deduction, because that will cut down on milk and pampers."

Shammira, 15, a Glenville 9th grader and mother of a 7-month-old toddler, is obsessed by the mandatory proficiency test that she says she can't pass. "I've written the newspapers, called TV stations to tell them that our school doesn't have the books for the science part. I can pass the other three parts but not the science part. I want to pass the test. I can pass the test. But I don't have the materials. I know. I've taken it and nothing was familiar to me."

Shammira says she has gone to her school counselors and to her science teachers and, though they agree with her, they tell her they can do nothing. "I'm not the only one complaining. I'm trying to get a petition to get it changed." Exasperated, she says, "It's the one thing holding me back. What's the point of going through this [LEAP] if I can't get a diploma?"

Says Shammira: "Students drop out [of the program] because they don't have people behind them. Without a diploma, they wind up working in fast-food restaurants. We [she and Taffy] don't want this to happen."

'Unforeseen Events'

When Simpson and Tetlak were informed of the girls' dilemma, they both sympathized. But Shammira's concerns fit into the category of the "unforeseen events" Simpson alluded to when LEAP first came into being.

Ted Kuhnen, a LEAP youth worker supervisor who works out of Tetlak's office in downtown Cleveland, put it another way: "Outside systems affect us but we don't do much to affect them." Kuhnen once worked full-time in the field with his three youth workers who put in four days a week on-site at their respective schools where, on average, they interact with some 105 students.

LEAP is now in 12 city high schools and three magnet schools, down from its population during the MDRC study because several schools have closed.

Kuhnen doesn't mince words about LEAP's relationship with a city school system under fire from many quarters. "Getting monthly attendance records is like pulling teeth," he says. "The school board has not issued any directives, so we're at the mercy of the individual principals."

As an example, when Kuhnen was accompanied by a reporter to East High School in East Cleveland, the school's principal, Henry Bradley, without an explanation, refused to allow one of the school's teachers who participated in a parenting skills program to be interviewed.

The school's hallways were strewn with trash, bottles and cans which students, teachers and security guards stepped over. Kuhnen's caseworker bantered with students walking halls without passes while classes were in session. That afternoon, a fight broke out in the hallway emptying classrooms.

"Most collaborations are a mile wide and a half-inch deep," said Phillip Coltoff, executive director of the Children's Aid Society in New York, which has entered into a highly successful partnership with the New York Board of Education at an ambitiously conceived community school in Washington Heights-Inwood. "Without my knowing the intricacies [of LEAP], a partnership is very hard work that requires a continuous investment of time and energy. In this kind of a relationship, you must define a common language."

Offner concedes that "there is much, too much due process. The results are not as positive as one would like, but its a darn difficult population. We need to continue trying to refine... Back then, at the beginning, we knew we had to do something. It was the only program targeted for these kids," says Simpson.

But now the scramble is on to prioritize purging welfare rolls to escape federal fiscal penalties. And the panic in the eyes of Shammira and Taffy, when they examine their prospects for receiving a diploma and ensuring a moderately decent livelihood, is very real.

Sidebar:

Teenage Mothers Model Program in Ohio Flunks: West Cleveland Teen Mothers Mentoring Program Draws Praise

Alexander, Bill. "Teenage Mothers Model Program in Ohio Flunks." Youth Today, January/February 1998, p. 62.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.

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