Oscar Mireles, Executive Director, Omega School
“I don’t help people, I help people help themselves,” Oscar Mireles
Since 1972, Omega School has been helping students obtain their GED or HSED and for 22 of those years, Oscar Mireles has been there. I recently met Oscar at a meeting in Madison about race relations; soon afterwards, we met for coffee and that’s when he invited me to Omega School to learn more. My expectation was I would interview him about the school and get the history and background, but I was surprised by the visit, because I got so much more.
I arrived about 10:00 on a Wednesday morning. Throughout our visit, Oscar was interrupted several times to answer the phone or buzz someone into the building. His intern who would have normally been there to help was unable work that day due to childcare challenges. Still, Oscar managed to patiently take each phone call and give his personal attention and offer hope and encouragement to every single person.
Oscar’s office is lined with metal file cabinets floor to ceiling with folders for every student that has graduated since he started 22 years ago. He told me that he personally meets each new student that joins the school and that seems to go a long way; he clearly remembered everyone who called even if they haven’t been in for weeks or had graduated a few years ago.
His care for the students goes well beyond help getting a GED, he also helps his them look for work or enroll in college or in some cases even get help from the food pantry. He shared many personal stories about the people who came through the doors during our visit. Stories about a young couple who moved into town just the day before and already they were at his door – her hoping to find work, him looking to complete his GED. Two days prior, this young couple was not even on Oscar’s radar and clearly he didn’t need more people to help, but still he patiently spent time with both of them to make them feel welcome and help them get started.
Next, a young man arrived who had recently been incarcerated and was now ready to prepare for his final test. Oscar explained to me that at any point in the process, for many of these students, something could happen that complicates the situation and makes it difficult to stay with the program and finish.
I asked Oscar how many similar-type schools there were in Wisconsin. He told me as far as he knew, they are the only school of its kind in the entire country. He said they have a more holistic approach—they provide bus passes, gas cards and sometimes cab rides to get the students to and from school because it’s critical to eliminate as many obstacles as possible.
He then excuses himself to answer the phone again. Whenever someone calls, he makes sure they understand what to expect. He talks them through the process – one person at a time; one thing at a time. Each person has a unique situation and he treats them accordingly. He tells me “Each student is different. You have to figure it out. Sometimes just being there for the little interactions provides hope.”
Another call comes in, “You gonna stop by soon?” A young man he’d already been working with for 3 years called to talk. “We’ve already talked a couple times,” Oscar tells him. He wants the caller to understand it’s time to take action and not just talk about it. “Yeah we have your folder here. You just have to commit to come here and do what you need to do till we’re done.” Then he told the student “…so if you come here for two weeks, I’ll help you get a job.” I’d say that is some great encouragement with definite hope at the end of it.
Another call came from a woman in her mid-twenties who called to tell Oscar she wanted to apply for college. He had to explain to her that she was too late to the game. “You need to plan about a year in advance for financial aid,” and he points out that classes have already started. “It takes time to process the application and time for the money to come through. Books are expensive.”
Instead he suggests she sign up for an Omega School boot camp that is coming up. “What we can do that might save you a lot of money is we’re setting up a boot camp. We are recommending that students take one class rather than starting a whole program. It helps you learn about time management. You’re already behind you should either look at doing something in January or next fall.” He ends the call by saying “if you’re going to do things…you have do it right…but in the end it’s up to you so if you want your transcripts which was your first question….” he then tells her how she can go about getting them. His final words to her, “and be careful what you post on Facebook!” He hangs up the phone and says “it’s helping people kind of navigate.” He explains how hard it is to tell someone who wants to go to college not to do it, but it’s a big step and she approached it too late.
Oscar told me a lot of the students at the school have a history of behavior problems in traditional classrooms, but at Omega, they don’t see those behaviors. He says “Everyone is very focused, everyone speaks nicely to each other. We take them away from their peers and people are pretty nice.” He explained that in the high school environment these students made poor choices and while they weren’t “those people” they were hanging around those people, following them. He describes the study environment at Omega as relatively quiet which is important because many of the students have a lot of chaos in their lives. By keeping it quiet they can settle down and he wants it to be a nice place to come to get focused.
I asked Oscar what the school’s graduation rate was and he told me it was about 30% which might not seem impressive, but considering the students they take in are those that can’t get in to other programs, it is absolutely astounding. He said Omega’s average age is younger than other schools—closer to 20 so they’re less mature and “rougher around the edges.” These aren’t the kids that have parental support and just need a few courses to get to graduation. These are kids with a lot of odds stacked against them.
Oscar, the poet
I also had a chance to ask Oscar about his role as Madison’s Poet Laureate, “It’s what you make it, there isn’t a job description.” He told me about several events and various readings he is doing; he will also be teaching a six week class for Latino high school writers later this year. He recently participated in the poetry on the bus program with Madison Metro. Since its beginnings in 2009, the project has seen huge growth. This year over 300 poems were submitted from which 30 were selected to be displayed on the buses.
Oscar told me he has plans to bring all the area’s poetry groups together. He wants to give everyone the opportunity to share what they do and talk about ways they can support each other and help reach a larger audience. His goal is to “take things up another level or two. That’s what I’m trying to do by bringing the community together and I will ask people to get involved.”
If you’d like to support the important work done at Omega School, please consider donating here.