In his 25 years as executive director of Omega School, Oscar Mireles has made a lasting impact on thousands of students that have come through his doors. It’s safe to say that they’ve also made a lasting impact on him.
Omega School, located on Badger Road across the street from Centro Hispano on Madison’s south side, gives students individual support and works to eliminate obstacles that keep students from getting their GED.
“What I really love about coming to work every day for the last 25 years is the students,” Mireles tells Madison365. “ I think I’m one of the few agency directors that meets with each and every one of the students. I’m not saying everyone likes me, but meeting with them one-on-one helps me hear their story and kind of guide them to where they want to go. It’s a reminder that it’s a journey and you have to take it one step at a time, but sometimes that first step seems the most insurmountable.”
Omega School provides individualized basic skills instruction in a supportive and informal atmosphere and work cooperatively with other agencies and institutions throughout Dane County to help thousands of adults prepare for and obtain a GED/HSED credential.
“The one thing that has been constant over my 25 years is that we’ve always had amazing students … interesting people who for one way or another high school just didn’t work out,” Mireles says. “The one-to-one at Omega has always been the thing at Omega that is different. Students get to meet a lot of people; a lot of very interesting people … and we think that’s it important.”
Mireles, who is also the city of Madison’s poet laureate, is celebrating a quarter century of great work at Omega all year long, but at the annual Omega School Prom and Gala Dinner last month at the Madison Club, a full house came out to hear powerful student stories about Mireles and to honor his 25 years at Omega School.
Mireles, in turn, honored 6 other agency directors that have been around 25 years for their service to the community including Tom Moen of the Madison Community Center, Jim Kramer from the Simpson Street Free Press, Sharyl Kato from the Rainbow Project, Steve Fleischman from MMOCA, Alex Gee of Nehemiah, and John DeMain from the Madison Symphony.
“We also did a special honor that night for Lupe Martinez who is the executive director for UMOS [ United Migrant Opportunity Services, Inc.] for 45 years,” Mireles says. “It was a wonderful night. It was a chance to recognize people who have really been doing great things in our community for a long time.
“I think I was the baby in the group,” Mireles adds, laughing. “I think John DeMain and I. John celebrated his 25th in 2018.
During his quarter of a century at Omega, Mireles has seen five MMSD superintendents come and go and numerous directors and CEOs from other southside agencies in his neighborhood including the Urban League, Centro Hispano and Boys and Girls Club, and more.
“I’m proud that I’ve been able to build some long-term longevity here at Omega versus having a new strategic plan every five years and going in different directions,” he says.
It all started for Mireles back on April 1, 1994.
“I can remember my first night on the job. I think we had 11 employees back then, which sounds like a lot, but many of them were part-time working as low as 2 hours a week,” Mireles remembers.
Did they even have Internet back in those early days?
“Things were run a little differently back then at Omega. The ’90s were different times. I can remember the first year that we had the Internet was because I wrote a grant to get the Internet,” Mireles says. “I still remember the modem and dial tone and the Mosaic web browser. One of our work-study students was a computer guy and he helped set us up. It was very different than it is now where things are more instant with phones and tablets.”
Back in the day, Omega was located on Madison’s near east side right across from Breese Stevens Stadium. Over the years, Omega’s home base has moved around a little bit before finding its home on Badger Road. During that time, the Omega family has grown.
“It makes me happy when I see former students out in the community working and doing what they like and being proud of what they do. It’s all about helping students find their way,” Mireles says. “They do the vast majority of the work; I kinda help guide them. For many young people, in order to change the trajectory, you have to believe there is a different trajectory to go … a different way to go.”
A big part of what Mireles does is getting young people to believe in themselves.
“And when things haven’t been going right for people, that can be so hard. Self-doubt will creep in even if you know the things you need to know intellectually. I think we’ve all been in that situation. We just need a little boost,” Mireles says.
The Spring Graduation Ceremony to celebrate the success of young adult earning their GED/HSED credentials at Omega School will be held on June 20th.
“We’ve been working hard with students and we want to get them over the finish line,” Mireles says. “Some of the students come in and sprint right through. They see the path after their initial assessment and realize that they are smarter than they gave themselves credit for and they made the GED harder than it really is.
“There are those that sprint right through. There are others that can do it, they start to sprint but then they disappear and sort of get lost but then they reappear and finish, too. But that second path is a bit longer than the first one,” Mireles adds.
Mireles enjoys every unique challenge that he and his students face at Omega. With 25 years in the books, is he looking forwarding to the next 25 years?
“Ahhhhhhhh. Hang on. We’re still celebrating the first 25 years,” Mireles laughs. “I’m at a nice vantage point now that I’ve been around for a long time. I still can’t believe I get paid to do what I do – I look forward to work every day. Each day is full of new challenges. It’s a lot of fun challenges. Every student is different and that’s what makes it exciting.”