Operation Fresh Start

From left: Antonio Ciarletta, 19, Erieona Martin, 17, and Cine Hill, 18. The Madison students are involved in Operation Fresh Start, an alternative education program.

Erieona Martin, 17, used to attend Memorial High School but said her “mind wasn’t there.”

Some days she would miss school to help out with her mother’s health issues and with larger class sizes, she said the school did not offer her the support she needed. But this past Saturday, Martin walked across the stage as an Operation Fresh Start student, celebrating with the rest of Memorial's graduating students.

Martin began going to school and working at OFS in November 2015 and is almost finished with the Pathways Program — a track that helps Madison youth obtain their high school degree.

“Before here, I didn’t have a job, I wasn’t making money, I was in the streets, I was bad,” Martin said. “I didn’t know what my life was going to bring.”

Now, Martin said she is on the “right path.” As an OFS student, she is gaining employment experience and working toward receiving her high school diploma.

The alternative OFS program aims to provide community youth from 21- to 24-years-old who are not in school or working toward a path to self-sufficiency by offering paid employment in construction and conservation in addition to class time, culminating in a degree from the district school.

OFS is adding and expanding options for 100 more youth in the community, Executive Director Greg Markle announced Tuesday. There are about 250 students currently involved in OFS, he said.

“OFS is all about what’s next,” Markle said.

He estimates there are about 3,000 disconnected youth in the community that are not in school and do not have a career path out of poverty.

Programs set for expansion include:

  • Options Program: Funded by the city of Madison Community Development Division, this program reaches out to each individual that did not complete high school with their class. This program will now start to include students throughout Dane County and not just the Madison Metropolitan School District.
  • Strive for Recent Graduates: This is a new program that will help 60 recent high school graduates develop employment skills and engage in career specific training. “The young people we work with don’t have experience in the workplace,” Markle said.
  • Outreach, Engagement and Resource Connections: When students leave a school community, many of the resources and support systems also fall away. This program with added staff will work to specifically reach older youth and help them connect to resources and establish a path to employment.
  • Pathways Program: This program, the largest OFS offers, is a partnership with MMSD. OFS will now be able to include youth up to 24-years-old to earn high school diplomas.

Citing recent violence in the area, Markle said OFS has been and is actively working to minimize negative behavior among those in the community who lack resources by leading them toward a positive future instead of feeling “hopeless.”

“That hopelessness leads to engaging in either criminal behavior or just not positive behavior,” Markle said.

Antonio Ciarletta, 19, said offering paid employment is a step in keeping people out of trouble.

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“They don’t have to do what they were doing on the streets to make money,” Ciarletta said.

Before Ciarletta came to OFS, he had tried two other alternative programs that did not work for him. He has just started the Pathways Program and would like to pursue a career in criminal justice.

“Before I came to (OFS) I was sitting home and doing nothing with my life,” Ciarletta.

He and Martin said the support of other participants and OFS instructors create an environment individuals want to return to. Martin’s supervisor even attended her graduation celebration from Memorial and has filled a father role in her own life, she said.

Markle said building a trusting relationship is key to the success of young people in OFS.

“The whole organization has been built on that relationship from the beginning,” Markle said. “That relationship of a caring staff member wanting that young person to succeed and believing they can.”

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Abigail Becker joined The Capital Times in 2016, where she primarily covers city and county government. She previously worked for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Wisconsin State Journal.