Granite City schools this month become the first in the region to enact a program aimed at keeping high school graduates in their hometown, potentially as future business leaders.
Called CEO, for Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities, the program allows students to take a real world view of life by looking through the lens of local business leaders, who serve as mentors.
The program originated through the Midland Institute for Entrepreneurship in Effingham, which has generated praise for its students’ success stories.
Midland breeds creativity by getting students outside the four walls of a school, to change the traditional learning process. Instead of taking tests, the students are given problems and asked to solve them. They must develop business plans — and start real businesses — as part of the coursework.
“When you see these kids, hear them and learn what they’ve accomplished, you’d think they were in their mid-20s,” Marc Voegele says. “This program fast forwards their creativity, their self-discipline, their maturity and their outlook.”
Voegele is serving as president of the board overseeing the program in Granite City, where he, too, graduated high school. His company, Express Employment, is one of the sponsoring businesses.
“I’m in a position to help with this, and I’m glad to do it. The only way this will work is with the support of the business community,” he said.
The program comes to Granite City, thanks in part to Jonathan Ferry, the city’s director of economic development, who learned about the Midland Institute early last year.
For local schools, CEO follows a previous program in which Ferry and school leaders worked for about two years with University of Illinois Extension and Madison County Employment and Training on an extracurricular program that would teach leadership skills in the fall and entrepreneurial skills in the spring.
The earlier program targeted sophomores and juniors primarily, but it wasn’t working as well as hoped.
“We had 20 to 25 students who would begin the program in the fall and by the spring had about four students who would finish it. The weakness with that program was it was extracurricular and it was competing against every extracurricular program out there,” Ferry said.
He and others were looking for alternatives in March 2013, when they went to visit a business conference being hosted by the CEO class in Effingham.
“We went to check it out, and it seemed to line up exactly with what we were looking for,” Ferry said.
Ferry sold it to the school district and to local businesses, in part by bringing in Craig Lindvahl, the executive director of the Institute, to speak on the subject.
The primary sponsoring businesses were asked to pledge $1,000 a year for three years.
“We got about $90,000 in pledges in a four-month time span,” Ferry said. “As familiar as they are with the business world, the trends and the changes and the needs of the workforce, it really didn’t take much selling — they just got it.”
Voegele agreed with that assessment.
“Not only is (CEO) a good idea, but it’s got a proven track record. There is definitely a need for entrepreneurs. The existing companies we have here today wouldn’t have been here without entrepreneurship,” Voegele said.
It took more than a year to form a board and then get the program up and running, including getting the curriculum approved by the school board and choosing a teacher. After an extensive screening process. Granite City business teacher Karen Greenwald was tabbed for the job, and Ferry said she’s impressive.
“We had four finalists. Not only did our board interview them, but a number of students in the existing Effingham CEO program came and met with our candidates.”
So did Lindvahl, the executive director of the Midland Institute.
“I was so impressed with the caliber of people interested in leading the class. Karen is already an all-star teacher, and CEO will give her the opportunity to use her greatest strengths to transform these young people,” Lindvahl said.
All the parties were unanimous on the choice of Greenwald because of her excitement and passion, which are important traits in a teacher, Ferry said.
Greenwald, has some real-world experience herself. Before becoming a teacher, she ran an accounting firm. Her mother was the founder of Shirl K Floral Designs in Granite City, Voegele said.
When they begin, students will participate in a program that runs 90 minutes a day, five days a week for two semesters. They will receive two high school credits.
Four different businesses will act as home bases, one each quarter. Students will meet first thing in the morning in the boardrooms of the businesses, as opposed to starting their day in school.
For the first couple of months, the students, all seniors, will get some business basics, things like finance and marketing. But starting in October, they’ll be meeting with business leaders on a regular basis.
“We have about 50 to 60 business managers who have said they are interested in being mentors. Some of the business leaders will come to their classes,” Ferry said.
Other businesses will invite students into their operations for a look-see. The businesses are mainly in the Granite City district but there are exceptions. There will be around 25 business tours conducted as part of the schooling.
“In fact, I was contacted yesterday by Jerry Kent, the cofounder of Charter Communications (and a Granite City native), who is now CEO of Linksys, and he’s expressed an interest in having the students come visit him in St. Louis,” Ferry said.
Roger Miller, founder of Gateway Packaging in Granite City, is also on the local CEO board. U.S. Steel, American Steel, Gateway Regional Medical Center, Prairie Farms, Arnette Pattern, and many other local companies are involved.
“All the big guys and a lot of little guys, too, “ Ferry said. “They’ve all been really excited about it.”
Lindvahl agrees: “Business people of all sizes really get CEO. It’s a chance for them to connect with young people in a real and meaningful way. They love the fact that they can share what they’ve learned in their professional lives with kids who really want to learn.”
The program is 100 percent funded by local businesses, Ferry said.
Several presentations were done to attract students in Granite City.
“We did a lot of pushing to get kids interested in the program, and initially we had 100 students pull applications. About 20 applications finally got submitted,” he said. “One of the big things is, students didn’t know what to expect, and from what we’ve been told from other communities that have started this program, that’s typical.”
In Effingham, Ferry said, the process is very competitive, and students are selected after a rigorous application process.
Some of the ideas to come out of the Institute are pretty amazing, both Voegele and Ferry said.
One of the students this year created a 3-D printing company. One of them last year designed her own jewelry, and through the contacts she made with the program found a manufacturing company in China. She has the product imported back here and sells it online and in local retail stores.
“She made something like $17,000 in her first year. A senior in high school,” Ferry marveled.
Several kids have gotten patents for inventing products. One of them who graduated a few years ago came up with an idea for converting propane engines to run on natural gas. He’s running a business and now going to college.
Another Effingham product was a young man who created a hunters’ clothes closet to separate hunting clothes from the rest of his apparel. The idea has taken off.
“It’s not just academic, you don’t just learn stuff out of a textbook. They’re doing real stuff and it’s what we hope our kids will be doing one day,” Ferry said.
He’s hoping that by next year there will be more applicants than spaces available in Granite City. “I think that’s possible once students start hearing from classmates about what they’re getting to see and do.”
The city has fought to keep population in recent years, and Ferry, a town native, said one of the potentials of this program is keeping graduates around the community.
“In Effingham they do pre- and post-surveys of the students, and one of the questions they ask every year is, “What is the probability that after graduation you’ll want to come back to the community to work, live and raise your family?’ Before taking the CEO program an average of around 3 in 25 said they would be likely to stay.
“After going through this program, it’s an astounding difference: 22 out of 25 say they plan to move back to their hometown, start a business or go to work,” Ferry said. “Twenty-five is not a lot but these are people who could make a difference, be leaders in the community.”
Midland Institute has been up and running for four years. Only a handful of communities are accepted each year, but the reach of the program gets bigger every fall. CEO classes can now be found in Illinois, Indiana and Minnesota. Each year, a trade show is held to showcase the students’ work.
“We hope to breathe into the culture of our students more of an entrepreneurial experience as well as something that Midland Institute refers to as ‘intrepreneuerial’ experience,” Ferry said. “And that is, the students take the mindset into the places where they go to work.”
Some of the graduates of the Effingham program are now going to Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and Saint Louis University and will be in the area, able to assist in the Granite City program, Voegele said.
He believes Granite City will become a success model that others will want to emulate.
“There’s a potential for every town in Metro East to have a program like this. You’ll be writing about this a long time. It’s a great, feel-good story all the way through,” Voegele said.
The first two of the four “home-base” sites for the students have been chosen. They are Nicol Financial and Illinois Electric Works. Several other businesses have expressed interest in playing host during the final two quarters of the school year, Ferry said.
For more information on the program, go the website, http://www.midlandinstitute.com/.