Operation Fresh Start (copy)

In this 2021 photo, Operation Fresh Start students David Wright, center, and Branden Hosler work on installing bifold closet doors for a Sun Prairie home.

There are dozens of great nonprofits in the Madison area, but none more successful than the 53-year-old organization known as Operation Fresh Start.

Since 1970, when it was founded by a Madison police officer, the late Jack Osteraas, it has been setting young people who have fallen through the cracks of society on a new path armed with a high school diploma, a driver's license and a good chance of getting a decent job.

In its first 50 years, the students in Fresh Start have worked on construction crews to build 250 affordable homes in Dane County, and those in a related conservation program have fanned out into dozens of projects at county and city parks.

But while they're learning a construction trade or gaining experience in landscaping and horticulture, the students are also taking classes to achieve their diploma. Of the more than 8,000 who have been accepted in Fresh Start, 75% of them have earned graduation and have gone on to family-supporting jobs.

That's quite a track record for kids who dropped out of school, got cross ways with the law or faced a myriad of other societal problems. What Jack Osterhaas dreamed in 1970 has blossomed into a success story that keeps getting better each year.

That's why it's so curious that the Madison School District has proposed to stop funding half of a teaching position that has worked to connect the city's schools with Fresh Start's Legacy program. For the past 10 years the district has paid half the cost of a full-time equivalent position for a teacher to help students earn those diplomas. Fresh Start has covered the other half of the cost in addition to providing two more full-time teachers on its own.

Eliminating the Fresh Start teacher is part of the district's plan to "surplus" dozens of staff and teacher positions to address an expected budgetary shortfall next year. Up to 60 teaching jobs could be affected.

Operation Fresh Start's executive director, former Madison Ald. Greg Markle, was blunt when informed of the plan. Without the district's participation, he said, the school system will not be fulfilling its role in instruction and oversight of student progress toward graduation.

The teacher who has been in the position, Erich Eifler, said he was surprised to learn the position was being what the district is calling "surplussed."

“I’m not worried about me; I’m an adult, and I’ll be fine," he commented. “What I am worried about is what’s going to happen to my students, what opportunities going forward are they going to miss?”

Fresh Start's deputy director, Brian McMahon, told the School Board last week that if the position were cut, it would create unforeseen problems because the teacher has direct relationships with district officials and school-based staff like counselors and social workers, including support for special ed kids

"Operation Fresh Start provides a fresh start to young people, predominantly young people of color, that have not found success at MMSD schools," Markle, who once directed the Literacy Council of Dane County, wrote the school administration.

"Please maintain the current investment in these young people at OFS who are most at need," he pleaded.

While the school district is looking at hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings, eliminating its share of the Fresh Start teacher would in the end save the schools a whopping $12,000.

Seems that amount of money could easily be absorbed some other way than causing harm to one of the area's most successful educational programs.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@captimes.com, 608-252-6410 and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.  

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.