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Greg Markle, executive director of Operation Fresh Start.

Mike DeVries - The Capital Times

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, 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.

Are these kids all in the same program?

One thing we're looking to do this summer is some different programming or really doing more outreach to the disconnected youth in the area. There are about 3,000 disconnected youth in Dane County — the Madison School District alone has 450 fifth-year seniors.

We're going to work with each one of them to develop a path forward. Our organization is moving beyond a program into a vision that each disconnected young person in the community has a path forward through education and work experience to sustaining themselves.

Who gets construction jobs and who gets conservation?

We ask them what they're interested in, but it's also largely based on what supervisor we anticipate they will work best with. Because the real important thing that happens on that job site is a bond forms between that supervisor and that young person. Oftentimes for the first time in that young person's life they have an adult who is a positive influence, who will call them on stuff but who will still work with them to try to improve so they can move forward. It's really that mentorship role, it's almost a personality-matching that we do.

Unfortunately in the job market you can't always get that match.

What usually happens is a young person is with their “match” for the first six months or so and then we start to switch them around, to put them in a position to stretch their skills.

What does our school system have to learn from Fresh Start?

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One of the things that Fresh Start can bring to the table is the ability to teach in different ways. We teach in a very hands-on, tactile type of system, and that's different than most class settings. The fact that the district partners with us means that they get it. But there's probably a whole lot of young people out there who could use alternative types of learning.

We hear that boys aren't as strong in classroom settings and are more likely to excel in hands-on environments. Have you seen that? What's the gender ratio at Fresh Start?

We're about 70 to 75 percent male. That might be somewhat because there are more males who drop out than females. That might be because the work platforms we have are more attractive to male applicants.

What are the career goals that applicants express when they come into the program? 

It's usually something general or something which they have no idea how to attain. We have a number of young people who come in wanting to be crime scene investigators because they want to solve a crime in an hour. You take that and transfer that into an interest in science or biology. We ask that they come in with some goal and we work with them to really hone that.

Are most students living at home, with family members?

Fifty percent are "housing insecure." That means they aren't on a lease, they aren't with a parent or guardian and they probably aren't sure where they're going to be living next month. They might actually be homeless or they might be cramming six young people into an apartment. It's a pretty transient population.

What percentage of the people in the program are parents themselves?

About 40 to 50 percent.

What do you think is lacking in the public dialogue on education?

The biggest thing that needs to be part of the public dialogue is that when a young person doesn't graduate when they're 18, we're wasting a whole lot of resources if we give up on them at that point. Graduating at 20 is often as good as graduating at 18.

Jack Craver is the Capital Times political reporter, focusing on elections, candidates and campaign finance.