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.

Continue Reading at The Cap Times



An Operation Fresh Start Member Shares his Journey from Foster Care to College

From Operation Fresh Start - March 2013 Newsletter 

By Dominique

Before OFS - while I was at a foster home in Oregon - I had a foster brother who was enrolled and witnessed many great things OFS did in and for his life. At the time, I didn't know much about Fresh Start except that I could earn an H.S.E.D. (High School Equivalency Diploma) while also building affordable housing in the community. 

Since then, OFS has put me in a position to better my life. I have completed some pre- college classes, earned tuition money, and learned a lot about housing construction and conservation work. OFS has also given me opportunities to network in my community. I'm most thankful that Fresh Start has allowed me to build upon life skills that I already possess. I thank OFS for having patience and taking a chance on me to become greater. When I leave OFS, I will be moving on to bigger and better things. Starting this fall, I plan on attending and completing MATC (Madison Area Technical College). My ultimate goal is to end up doing something I thoroughly enjoy and love. In the mean time, I will work at obtaining a great job. After I get the job, I hope to get my own apartment and vehicle so I can do my own thing.

Fresh Start has influenced me in a very positive way. The staff are great people who help guide the lives of troubled youth who are willing to try. Without the help of Operation Fresh Start my path would have been a lot more rocky and gloomy.

Where are they now? – Catching up with 2011 Corpsmember of the Year, De’Andre Alexander


De'Andre Alexander, a former member of Operation Fresh Start, won Corpsmember of the Year in 2011 for his commitment to service and self improvement. Read below to find out what he's been up to since accepting his award, or find out more about De'Andre and his Corps experience by reading his bio from our 2011 national conference.

De'Andre Alexander, a 2011 Corpsmember of the Year, currently apprentices as an ironworker. After he finishes the 4-year apprenticeship, he wants to take night classes and hopefully earn his bachelor’s degree. He dreams of becoming a firefighter or perhaps working with Operation Fresh Start, the Corps that helped him get back on his feet. As De’Andre says, his life would be very different today had he not found Operation Fresh Start.

“I would probably be working at a restaurant or be in some job that doesn’t have a lot of benefits and I wouldn’t get paid as well as I do now,” said De’Andre. “I wouldn’t say I would be as immature as I was [before], but I’m sure I wouldn’t be as mature as I am now. I definitely wouldn’t have the skills I have now. I’m sure without Operation Fresh Start I would be nowhere.”

De’Andre, who is now 22 years old, joined Operation Fresh Start in June 2009. He had recently been released from jail for an armed robbery he committed in 2007. With a felony on his record, De’Andre found it very difficult to find a job. Operation Fresh Start gave him a chance. While in the program, De’Andre gained carpentry skills, learned how to be a reliable employee, and completed a few college credits. Most importantly, he learned how to manage his anger.

“Not only did they teach me carpentry, but they taught me how to work. They taught me how to act in a workplace,” said De’Andre. “At the time I was still a kid. If I hadn’t gone to Operation Fresh Start I probably would’ve gotten a job, and who knows? I could’ve gotten fired just because I didn’t have that work ethic in me yet. Doing carpentry definitely made me tough as I am now as far as being a hard worker and willing to take on tasks.”

De’Andre says that what made the Operation Fresh Start program such a good fit for him was the caring staff. He feels that many of his teachers in high school were not invested in the students or didn’t push him hard enough. At Operation Fresh Start, De’Andre was motivated by being surrounded by supervisors and instructors who were attentive and obviously passionate about their work.

De’Andre says that Operation Fresh Start helped him become a calmer, more accepting person. Counselors at OFS taught him ways to control his actions and his words, and working in a crew with his fellow Corpsmembers helped De'Andre learn important teamwork skills.

“One thing I learned at Operation Fresh Start was that you have to learn how to work with all types of people,” said De’Andre. “If your coworker is different from you, you can’t change them. You have to learn how to work with them. Working at Operation Fresh Start there were a lot of guys I wouldn’t even have hung out with in high school. Working on the crew I learned that it doesn’t matter who they are. You need to make the best of it and learn more about them. That’s what’s going to make the world an easier place.”

These days De’Andre takes pride in the things he helps build as an ironworker. He says he knows he’ll produce his best work possible if he thinks of his projects as his own buildings. Though De’Andre enjoys his apprenticeship, he sometimes misses carpentry. He continues to volunteer with construction crews at Operation Fresh Start whenever he can. When his schedule permitted, he spent entire days volunteering with OFS. He says he loves getting to meet the new Corpsmembers and offer them advice.

De’Andre’s younger brother is currently enrolled in Operation Fresh Start. He says his brother also sometimes struggles with anger management issues. At one point his brother dropped out of the program. As De’Andre said:

“He didn’t want to go back, but I told him, ‘You got to go back. Without Operation Fresh Start you’re not going to learn the skills you need to survive in the real world.’ And then he decided to go back and I just told him to stay tough, do what your supervisors tell you and keep your head on your shoulders. It’s definitely worth it.”




2011 Corpsmember of the Year: De'Andre Alexander

***Update! Click here to read about what De'Andre has been up to since winning his award.***

(Written in 2011)

De’Andre Alexander says that in the past he was described by others as “cool, but also disloyal, dishonest, and disobedient.” After committing an armed robbery in 2007, De’Andre was arrested and went to jail. “When I was released from jail, I had no idea what I was going to do. I knew that the first thing that I had to do was get a job, which is hard to do with a felony on your record. That’s when I came to Operation Fresh Start and applied.”

Since coming to Operation Fresh Start (OFS), De’Andre has become an influential and charismatic force. With his crew, De’Andre has helped construct several new homes in low-income communities as well as work on a number of conservation projects. He is also appreciated for his willingness to help fellow Corpsmembers work through their problems and persevere.

De’Andre is currently serving his 2nd term at OFS and is also enrolled at Madison Area Technical College in the Health Club Technician program. But De’Andre has even bigger plans.

He wants to get his felony expunged so that he can join the military and earn a bachelor’s degree. He also wants to get a teaching license and be a high school gym teacher and possibly a football coach. De’Andre now understands how crucial this formative time can be in a young person’s life.

“I want to help teach kids how to make positive decisions so that they won’t make the same choices I made before I joined OFS. After being here for 16 months, people describe me as honorable, positive, and authentic. Not only have I learned how to work with different people in different situations, but I’ve learned how to control my anger significantly, push myself to the limit, and lead a group to successfully complete a goal. Being a Corpsmember has impacted my life dramatically and shown me the way to success.”