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CEO program eyed for Piatt, DeWitt County students

If funding can be secured and community engagement garnered, a unique opportunity for high school students who have an entrepreneurial bent could be coming to Piatt and DeWitt counties.

The Midland Institute for Entrepreneurship CEO program offering would allow 20 students per year to interact directly with area businesses. Potential partners and school officials were given information on the program at a breakfast meeting April 27 at the Monticello Municipal Building.

Taking up two class periods per day, participants would be required to work together as a team on a single business project the first semester, then form their own individual businesses the second half of the school year. It would all lead up to an end-of-year trade expo where their wares would be sold.

“I am excited about the possibilities,” said Doug Harlan, the U of I Extension Advisor for Macon, DeWitt and Piatt counties. “I am familiar with the program through other Extension units who work with it. The successes are nothing short of amazing. Plus it is a wonderful way for our communities to partner.”

Midland Institute spokesperson Cheryl Mitchell told the gathering that the program is in operation in 39 communities involving more than 160 schools, and that teaching students the ways of the business world can reduce “brain drain” by enticing some of them to stick around. She also said many long-standing businesses have no succession plan and end up closing, especially in rural communities.

“What we’re finding is the kids don’t even know what’s in their community,” said Mitchell. “CEO is this partnership between education and business. So then we get to do things a little bit differently.”

For instance, the CEO program has no teacher, instead using a part-time facilitator to supervise its day-to-day operation. Mitchell said students are expected to “own it” and “do it” and “walk out having experienced it.”

There is no cost to schools, but a CEO operating board must raise the operational costs – expected to be $35,000 to $50,000 per year – through $1,000 per year commitments from community members and businesses. Mitchell said investors are only allowed to donate $1,000 per year so that “everyone’s voice is equal.”

A $25,000 one-time fee to the Midland Institute is required, and it takes about a year to implement, meaning the first class of students locally would start in the fall of 2018.

Mitchell added that academic standing is not a key to being accepted into the program.

“We have two requirements, to be trustworthy and hard working,” she said of the blind application process open predominantly to high school seniors. “Your GPA we don’t care about. We don’t care about your last name and if you’ve gotten to do everything in the whole wide world.”

An essay and letters of recommendation are also part of the application process.

“This is the second time I have seen this presentation. I believe this is something that our school should do. I believe that this is something that our school could support,” said Blue Ridge High School Principal John Lawrence.

Monticello School Superintendent Vic Zimmerman agreed.

“This program is unlike anything we currently offer at Monticello High School or in Piatt/DeWitt County schools. If we can get the support needed to make it happen it could be a real game-changer for students in our counties,” he said after the CEO meeting.

Business owner Mike Heiniger of Mike Heiniger Photography was also on board.

“As a business person, it would be rewarding to help mentor a student or teach the little I know that might help someone,” he said.

The next step is for a steering committee to meet in the next month discuss the feasibility of starting a CEO program for Piatt/DeWitt counties, according to City of Monticello Director of Community Development Callie Jo McFarland.

She added she would rather see the program be delayed a year rather than rushed into operation.

“This program is definitely something that we want to implement, and want to go in strong as opposed to rushed, so it may be 2019 before it is on the schedule. Either way, I think it is an innovative way to engage the youth in the community, as well as build the networks between the schools, business and student communities,” said McFarland.

Additional information is also available at midlandinstitute.com.

Source: The Journal-Republican
By: Steve Hoffman

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