By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
Supporters are urging businesses in the Alton region to get behind a program that aims to make CEOs of today’s high school students.
If successful, two local school systems, and perhaps more, will become the latest in Metro East to join a growing Midwest movement.
The River Bend CEO program is a spinoff of a concept created by the Midland Institute for Entrepreneurship in Effingham. CEO stands for Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities, but a lot of actual CEOs — as in chief executive officers — are involved.
The whole aim is to prompt high school students to one day become business leaders of their hometowns.
Alton community leaders were influenced to pursue the program based on the experiences in Granite City, which last year become the first in Metro East to implement the program. Since that time, Belleville area schools joined the movement and several others are showing interest.
Alton School District Curriculum Coordinator Cindy Inman was unsure about it all until she heard a presentation in Granite City.
“I brought it back here and said, ‘This is something we definitely need to do in the Alton community’,” she said.
Particularly impressive, she said, was the story of a Granite City student, a junior on the verge of dropping out over poor attendance. He had missed 100 days of school in his freshman year alone.
Participation in the CEO program helped turn his life around.
“He didn’t feel like high school had anything to offer him. After he got involved in the CEO program, not only did he become more connected, he’s going to graduate — a half a year late, but he plans to go to college,” Inman said.
She feels the program is an answer to the middle half of students who don’t always get extra attention.
“We do a lot with our honor students and we do a lot with our struggling students, but our middle of the road students, sometimes we forget about them, and I truly believe the CEO program is something for the kids who need a career path,” she said.
Virtually all of the program happens in the field. Students get to visit businesses and see how they run. Every participating student is matched with a business mentor, who teaches them about such things as laws, insurance and running a business.
Students 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 meet with business leaders on a regular basis.
Students must develop business plans — and start real businesses — as part of the coursework. In Granite City, one of the graduation requirements is a trade show in which students display products they’ve created.
In Alton, the program is being initially targeted toward Alton and Marquette Catholic high schools and is expected to start next school year. But money is going to be needed, along with businesses that can provide mentorship or classroom space. Business host sites change each quarter.
“We are really looking for community support,” Inman said. We are still in the developmental stage and working on getting the community backing.”
Participating businesses are asked to commit $1,000 a year over a three-year period.
A “CEO board,” which serves as an overseer of the program, is being formed. Next up will be hiring of a facilitator — who serves much like a teacher.
The board, among other things, screens student applicants and meets with the facilitator each month to check progress. A maximum 22 students will be selected for the program, depending on business support.
Inman hopes the local program spreads beyond Alton and Godfrey.
“We’re calling it the River Bend CEO program. If there are smaller schools, like Wood River or Roxana, that can’t get their own cohort together, we can have them join our cohort since we’re all so close to each other,” she said.
Monica Bristow, the president of the RiverBend Growth Association, said the idea for Alton’s involvement originated with Marc Voegele, a Metro East businessman who was instrumental in getting Granite City’s program off the ground.
That led to a Growth Association meeting with superintendents and later with meetings with the executive director of Midland Institute.
“We’ve had Craig Lindvahl make a couple presentations to the business community,” Bristow said. “We need about 30 commitments (of businesses to make the three-year financial commitment). We also need to raise $25,000 initially as a onetime fee to start the program. That includes all the materials from Midland Institute.”
The program is now conducted in four states, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri and Indiana.
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.
Voegele had just attended the latest meeting of the River Bend CEO developmental board when interviewed.
“It looks like we’ve already collected enough money to go over the first financial hurdle (in Alton),” he said. “We’ll be officially sitting at the board at the next meeting. We’ll be going to Effingham in November for training. We’ve already started a process to identify facilitator candidates.”
Voegele has become a champion across the region for the CEO program and has spoken with local districts multiple times.
He said a Belleville CEO group, comprised of Belleville East and West high schools, Althoff Catholic High School and Governor French Academy, started this year.
Waterloo High School has formed a board to pursue a program.
Highland, Edwardsville, Collinsville/Triad, O’Fallon Township and Jacksonville/Macoupin County schools are all showing interest, he said.
“I know the staff at the Midland Institute continues to grow to handle the demand,” Voegele said. “Eight years ago this started with one program and they are already into 30-some odd programs in four states.”
Voegele has seen the results in Granite City.
“You don’t even have to wait for the end of the school year. It’s apparent halfway through the impact it’s having on these kids. I see this as something that will pay dividend for the communities for years on end,” he said.
Granite City is on its second year of participants. With 13 students, it’s larger than last year. It usually takes about three years for a program to get really “planted,” he said. Voegele is confident that Granite City will eventually reach the 22-student maximum.
Meanwhile, he said the number of business investors in Granite City remains stable, with new ones being attracted and older ones retained.
Lindvahl told the IBJ previously that business people “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,” he said.
Midland participants have enjoyed a string of successes, from creating a 3-D printing company to crafting a jewelry line. More about the entrepreneurs can be found at midlandinstitute.com.