They concentrate. Sitting in a classroom in the Social Services building, a half-dozen young people bend over pieces of paper. Writing. Figuring.

Only the tops of their heads are visible. One boy has blond curls. Two others wear their dark hair pulled into gravity-defying spikes. A boy bends his head toward the girl next to him in quiet collaboration.Soon they finish. They have figured out a monthly budget. Victory.

Raising their heads to chat, they reveal the smooth skin and eager faces of 17-year-olds. They talk about their budgets. The way they spend their money says something about their values, gives them insight into each other's lives. They laugh and tease each other like old friends.

These teens are -- like all teens -- taking their first steps into adulthood. However, unlike most Utah youngsters, they don't have parents around to help them if they falter.

They are in foster care. The budgets they make this night are more than mere math exercises. Studies show that American families spend more on their children during the "launching" years, than at any other time.

These youngsters are launching themselves.

If they don't learn to live on whatever wages they can earn, there will be no adult to open a checkbook and bail them out. They will ruin their credit ratings before they're 20, or get into more serious trouble.

Their teachers, Kay Harrison and Jeryne Webb, don't speak about the future in such bleak terms, however.

Harrison, who is the independent living coordinator for the Utah Department of Social Services, and Webb, who is her assistant and a social worker, know better than to preach to teenagers.

Rather, they ask questions. "What is FICA?" or "What is a credit rating?" The teens answer and talk to each other. The teachers rarely interrupt or supply answers. They just throw questions into the swirling conversation.

"Why is it important for a woman to get credit in her own name?" "What is interest?" "Could you live without a car?"

As for the teens themselves, they have just been asked to develop a plan for living on $450 per month, which is a bit more than what their take-home pay would be were they to work full-time at a minimum wage job. But they aren't discouraged. They see this as a challenge. Proof they are grown.

They try to figure out how to cut back on food. ("Do you think I can eat on $60 a month?" asks a boy big enough to be a football player.) They consider cutting back on personal items. ("What did people use before deodorant was invented?" "Everyone smelled the same, it didn't matter if you used deodorant.")

They seem eager, even after Harrison reminds them gently that $450 is almost twice what they'll be getting when they finish this class and are given their foster care grant directly. At that time they'll either begin to pay their foster parents room and board, or, if they haven't already done it, they'll go out to find an apartment on their own. The foster care grant can continue until they graduate from high school, even if they turn 18 first.

Whatever their past pain -- whether they are in foster care because of abuse or abandonment, or because of some trouble they've found for themselves -- they seem ready to leave it behind and put on a brave face for the future.

Webb says, "I have a biased belief that these kids have the same skills ofa child from a family. Their weakness is in relationships in trusting themselves, in dealing with authority."

The independent living class tries to compensate a littlle for those weaknesses. "We are trying to teach basic living skills," says Harrison. "We ask them who they are at this point and what they might want to be when they grow up. Then we talk about how to get there. What skills do they have? What education do they need?

"We talk (and bring in speakers) about how to manage money, find housing, take care of their health, use community resources.

"Before we started this class, we were taking kids from the foster system, where they'd pretty much been moved from one home to another to another with very little consistency, and just dumping them when they turned 18. They weren't prepared to take care of themselves."

Harrison has taught the independent living survival course for two years. They get an incentive if they successfully complete the course and come in to talk about their progress.

They get $300 the first month, $200 the second month, and $100 the third month after the course. This money is to help them pay deposits on an apartment and utilities, or to get started in college.

To be eligible for the independent living classes the young person must be between 16 1/2 and 18 years of age, be in the state's custody with no chance of going back to their parents' home, and must qualify for emancipation (which means they aren't a danger to themselves or to anyone else).

Some young people don't flourish in foster care, explains Harrison. "Lots of times we drop them off at the front door and they run right out the back. They can't get along with their own families, and they don't want to waste time learning to get along with someone else's."

Such youngsters make good candidates for early emancipation, say at age 17. They still remain in the state's custody. They must go to school and check in regularly with a caseworker. But they live in an apartment and take responsiblity for their own education and their own lives.

Some of the students in this class, Harrison explains, are already living on their own -- managing their own grant money. All are in high school; some are doing quite well. Some have part-time jobs; the others are looking.

"For the first seven or eight class sessions, we work on self-esteem and building the group's trust," says Harrison. The early weeks of getting comfortable with the group pay off in the budgetihng class. Because he feels safe, one boy is willing to share his most recent brush with budgeting reality. "Don't do what I did," he says. "My roommate and I only had enough money to pay the utilities.

"We couldn't pay rent. We learned it doesn't do any good to pay to have your apartment nice and warm when you've been locked out in the cold."

Eighty-nine young adults have finished the course. Many of them still come back to visit Webb and Harrison. And how are they doing? "They are struggling along," says Harrison. "Just like the rest of us are.

"One thing we've found that's kind of surprising is that if they have natural parents around they are probably getting some help from them. Once parents see that the kid is working and taking care of himself and really growing up, they want to establish a relationship again."

*****

(GRAPHIC)

Sample budget $450/mo*

Percentage Amount Savings

SAVINGS 5 percent $22.50

RENT 7 UTILITIES 25 percent $112.50

FOOD 20 percent $90.00

(inc. eating out)

CLOTHING 10 percent $45.00

INSTALLMENT LOANS 10 percent $45.00

TRANSPORTATION 15 percent $67.50

(bus fare, gas & oil, car insurance)

MISC. 15 percent $67.50

(recreation, cleaning & maintenance, personal hygeine items, medical)

* $450/mo. would be slightly more than take home pay at a minimum wage, 40 hour/wk job