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By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
    Alton area high school students are getting a real-world view of business through Riverbend CEO, a program that supporters want to bring to more schools in the next year.
    “I have a fantastic group of students, very eager to learn and enthusiastic,” class facilitator Katie McBee said of her first-year cohort, comprised of 18 students from Alton and Marquette Catholic high schools.
    The initiative was introduced in Alton in 2015 as part of Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities, a program of the Midland Institute for Entrepreneurship of Effingham. CEO has rapidly expanded in Southern Illinois schools in an effort to instill an early love of entrepreneurism.
    Students spend the first 90 minutes of each school day off campus, either at a touring site or in a conference room of a sponsoring business.
    “We just had a tour of a local real estate company; they asked good questions,” McBee said. “They are very open to learn about what goes on behind the doors of businesses in the area.”
    If all goes well, the Riverbend CEO program will expand into East Alton-Wood River and Roxana high schools in the coming year.
    “We are going to be accepting applications early next year from junior students for their senior year,” McBee said.
    A maximum 22 students will be chosen for a class. EAWRHS and Roxana students would be chosen in the same way that Alton and Marquette were in the first year and will be combined for one class.
    Each student is required to create a business during the second semester that includes a business plan and must maintain a daily journal. Guest speakers tell students what it takes to make it in business — or not. One speaker frankly said it took him seven years of hard work to ultimately decide he did not want to run his own business.
    “I thought that was important for the kids to hear,” McBee said.
    At the end of the year, students will decide if they want to continue on in business. “But if they don’t that’s OK, too. They’ve got all this real-world experience and great connections in the community,” McBee said.
    Some $35,000 had to be raised to get the program started. Local businesses underwrite the cost, with most of them committing $1,000 for each of three years. No school funding is involved, and the classes never meet on school grounds.
    Monica Bristow, president of the RiverBend Growth Association whose initiative got the program off the ground in Alton, said the students are being transformed.
    “Their maturity level from when they started on Aug. 17 until today is unbelievable,” she said. “These kids can look you in the eye, shake your hand. The confidence level is amazing.”
    People who want to follow the progress can tune in the Facebook page, Riverbend CEO.