Omega School in the Era of the COVID-19 Pandemic
Maintaining Good Old Fashioned
Oscar Mireles has been the director of Omega School for over 25 years.
types of categories that people fit in who come to Omega. One is the single parent who realizes they need at least a high school degree to get a better job to support
themselves and their children. The second is what Mireles calls a class clown.
“Their behavior made the school difficult because sometimes when they wanted to change, their behavior and people seeing them as one kind of person
sometimes institutions don’t allow you to change,” Mireles said. “I’m kind of a jokester and I’ve learned to temper that so that people take me seriously.”
The third is someone who has experienced a lot of trauma in their lives and are now ready to move on. The fourth is someone who has bullied others or who has
been bullied and the traditional school and class setting hasn’t worked for them. And the last is those who have gotten caught up in the criminal justice system.
“Either they are on probation, they have just gotten out of jail or just gotten out of prison,” Mireles said. “The complications of having their learning interrupted
when they were at Ethan Allen or weren’t focused on learning for a time. They get stuck at a certain level.”
With all of them, it is up to Mireles to figure out where they are coming from and the best way to motivate them — and keep them motivated — to finish this leg of
their academic journey.
“Each person needs something and our job is to figure out what that is,” Mireles said. “If they need hand-holding, I don’t think a lot of them do. But we try to help
them figure out what they might need. And then we try to figure out how we best give them that so that they can begin to find success, build their confidence and
then proceed until they finish their credentials and are able to move on with the rest of their lives.”
And it is up to Mireles to customize the response to the particular circumstances of the individual.
“You can’t give the pregnant girl the bully recipe,” Mireles said. “She would probably punch me and then we wouldn’t be going anywhere. Part of doing the
informational interview is I am able to kind of figure out what there challenges are going to be. When they call, they are motivated and that is good. It’s easy to be
motivated the first day. But how do you sustain the motivation and effort and how do you get them to make the smaller goals passing the first test until you get to the
point where they pass the last test.”
With the class clown, you need to take away the environment that made them clown in the first place.
“With the class clown, you end up getting rewarded for that,” Mireles said. “It gives you something, but not what you are supposed to have. It gives you something
to take a hold of. In our environment here, we’re able to eliminate, for the ones who have doubt, the audience. There is no audience here. If you are in a public
school and the teacher stops someone, they say, ‘Hey, what are you doing? You can’t touch me.’ And then there are 5-6 other students there. And the teacher has
pretty much abdicated control to the students. And the teacher learns to just leave them be. That means the student ends up being in charge. So when they come
here, then I have to quickly on the first day remind them that I love them a lot, but Omega kind of works a certain way. And hopefully the sooner they figure it out, the
more likely it is that they are going to have success. It’s still a situation where we have to address each student. I try to figure out, starting the first day, what it is
going to take to get this person to do it.”
For some people, it is hard because they are so used to gaming the system and thinking they are the smartest person in the room. Mireles has to meet them move
for move, almost like a chess game, cutting off lines of retreat until they face the reality that they just need to go ahead and get their GED. One example is people
who are in some kind of system, be it criminal justice or social service.
“We have some people who come for a letter, Mireles said. “They need a letter for the probation agent. They need a letter for their W-2 caseworker. Their goal is to
come and get a letter. And so, we have a rule that you have to be here 20 hours before I sign the letter. Their goal becomes being here for 20 hours and a letter and
that’s what they get. I keep a list of all of the people I’ve given a letter to and a lot of them still haven’t graduated. Their goal wasn’t to graduate. Their goal was to
get the letter. And here, I’m the only one who can sign letters.”
Once they get the letter, they may not come back to finish their GED. But chances are, they will have to come back for another letter.
“I’m the only one who can sign forms,” Mireles said. “It’s really to help the students. Sometimes the staff feels I want to know everything. And I say, ‘Yes, I do want
to know everything.’ But it is really to not let the students get away with anything. Sometimes they are here for another reason, which is okay as long as I know and
as long as they know I know why they are here. The ones who get a letter, when they come back, I remember the letter. When they come back, I print out a copy and
I say, ‘We have this letter here. Where do you think that came from?’ He might say, ‘Well I can explain.’ I say, ‘That’s perfect because that’s what I am asking you to
do. You’re actually answering the question that I didn’t ask you. I want to ask you one question. Do you think I am going to write you another letter?’ They say, ‘I don’t
know.’ And I say, ‘That’s right. You don’t know if I am going to write you a letter. I wrote you one and you didn’t do anything. What do you think I’m going to do with
the second one?’ It’s really to help them. I can’t let them get away with anything because our students are so used to getting away with stuff.”
There are times when the biggest enablers in the students’ lives are those who truly love them. Parents will believe anything they say because they love their child
and don’t want to confront the fact that their loved one is playing them.
“When a parent does come, I say, ‘Who are you going to ask how he does in my school,’” Mireles said. “They say, ‘I’m going to ask him.’ I ask, ‘What has he always
told you? He’s always told you what you wanted to hear. If he asks me, I’m going to tell the truth because if I lie, I have to remember that I lied. So all I have to do is
tell the truth. And it’s kind of easy. So if you ask me, I’m going to tell you the truth. Your kid is going to tell you what you want to hear and that is what happened. That
has been one of the problems. You believe him because you want him to do well. But you have to understand that I want him to do well too. But if he tells you he is
coming to school and he’s not here, if you call me, I’ll tell you he’s not here.’ It’s about helping them figure out that in the end, they are the ones who are holding him
back. And until they realize that they aren’t going to get ahead, even if it seems like they are getting ahead. I help them kind of figure it out.”
And even when some students are “working” on their GEDs, they may be going through the motions, but not really trying. Mireles has to help them get real.
“Some of them say, ‘Well, it’s just a test,’” Mireles said about students who quickly go through a test just to fail it. “We had a guy come and take a test. It said that
he only got eight questions right. And he had a 2.9 reading level. I asked the staff if that was right. He did the 25 question test in nine minutes. When I saw him, I
Part 1 of 2
By Jonathan Gramling
Omega School on Badger Road does one thing and does it well: help people
attain their GED or HSED. And so that simple mission has allowed Omega
School to transition to the virtual education era.
But one thing that is a challenge is giving tough love to many of the people who
utilize Omega School’s services. Often times, they are remarkably intelligent
people who have used their wit and smarts to game the system and to get by
into their adult lives. But life has a way to catch up with you and at some time,
they find themselves at Omega School’s proverbial doorstep seeking a chance
to get the education — and credentials — they need to get a new start on life.
According to Oscar Mireles, the director of Omega, there are five general
said, ‘That’s kind of odd.’ But he did really well on the math. I talked to
his PO and said, ‘I tried to call him and he didn’t answer.’ The PO said,
‘Yeah, yeah, I just got off the phone with him.’ I said, ‘Here’s what you
tell him. Oscar noticed that you took a test and you didn’t take it
seriously. Oscar is going to give you one chance to ever do that in
Omega. The next time you take it and you don’t take it seriously, that’s
your last day. If I have to tell him that, it’s his last day.’ His PO told him
that, what is he going to do? He now knows that the PO knows and he
knows that I know. The only one who doesn’t know is his mother and
she doesn’t like him anyways. I’ve learned that you get things by
asking. And you get things by putting people in a corner. I prefer to ask,
but I’ll put you in a corner.”
Next issue: More Tough Love and the Virtual Learning Environmenmt