How Operation Fresh Start Helps Serve High School Dropouts and Closes the Achievement Gap

Editor's Note: The Cap Times recently interviewed Gregory Markle, Executive Director of Operation Fresh Start. We have republished part of this great Q&A below.

Q&A: Greg Markle helps dropouts get a Fresh Start

Operation Fresh Start, a program located in a building at 1925 Winnebago St. on the east side, was founded in 1970 to help high school dropouts gain education and job skills.

Today, the program has 130 students between the ages of 16-24, as well as a waiting list of about 150. The students in the program split their time between the classroom, where most study with the goal of obtaining a high school equivalency diploma, and a job site, where they work to build low-income housing or on conservation projects through AmeriCorps.

This school year, for the first time, the Madison School District has partnered with the organization to allow certain students in the program to receive full high school diplomas, rather than equivalency diplomas. The former often looks better on a job resume.

Markle, a former alder (shown right), recently organized a forum for Madison School Board candidates to talk to Fresh Start students, who he says represent the faces of the achievement gap. More than anything, he wants the community to understand why it's important that we don't give up on dropouts.

The Capital Times: How is Operation Fresh Start relevant to the discussion of the achievement gap?

Greg Markle: We directly take people who have dropped out or are on the verge of dropping out of high school and turn them into graduates. The impact is measurable, direct and probably the most efficient use of funds to address the achievement gap available.

What are less efficient ways?

Well, I think less measurable. If you're working on cultural competency among kindergarten teachers, for instance. Long-term that might have an effect, hopefully it does, but you're not going to see that direct impact the way that Operation Fresh Start can have that direct impact in the community right now.

How do people get into the program?

They have to demonstrate three things to us: That they want to change where they are educationally; they have to change something about themselves personally — whether it's how they deal with authority, how they time manage, (alcohol or drug) issues, anger management issues. Then they have to come in with an idea of a career goal, that they are with us because they want a career with which they can sustain themselves going forward.

What are the job skills they learn at Fresh Start?

They learn how to act on a job. They learn the importance of showing up on time, how to ask questions of the supervisor, working in a team setting, dressing appropriately for the work done, as well as addressing hardships in a job. When you're trying to smooth mud on drywall, you have to work on how to address difficulties on a job.

They also achieve success and know for the first time what it feels like to have done a job well and to see their accomplishments.

The young people we work with never received the training in those skills and it really makes it difficult for them to succeed in the work world. Employers oftentimes expect people to come with those basic skills, so there's a disconnect.

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