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High schools to start entrepreneurship program

Three Southern Illinois counties this fall will roll out an entrepreneurship class for high school juniors and seniors in an effort to build a new generation of business owners with ties to the local economy.

The Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities, or CEO, program offers students hands-on business experience and a chance to build their own start-up over the course of the year. It will be available to students in Jackson, Williamson and Perry counties next school year.

“It’s a great opportunity for students,” said Chris Grode, superintendent of schools for Murphysboro Community Unit School District 186, which includes Murphysboro High School. “It really teaches innovation. It shows the kids how businesses actually work, and they get hands on experience.”

The CEO program already is in place in more than a dozen counties in Illinois, Minnesota and Indiana, and will be available to students in about 125 high schools in the fall, said Craig Lindvahl, executive director of the Midstate Institute of Entrepreneurship, which oversees and promotes the program.

A modified program already is in place in Union County.

Lindvahl was the program’s first teacher -- starting in 2008 in Effingham -- and he said he’s impressed by the results.

“In 50 years in education, as a student and a teacher, this is the best thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It allows you to tap the best resources you have in your community in a way that changes everybody.”

The class offers experiential learning and utilizes the community as its classroom. Students meet at various businesses throughout the year, learning hands-on lessons from the entrepreneurs who developed each company.

It’s completely independently funded -- in most cases by local businesses owners.

John Pfeifer, The Southern’s publisher, is on the board of the Jackson County program.

The class matches students with local business leaders who serve as mentors, guiding their charges through the process of developing an idea, writing a business plan and building a small venture.

Lindvahl said a student in Springfield had a ribbon-cutting ceremony on the last day of class for a brick-and-mortar business he’d been developing all year.

In an era when the average age of residents in rural communities continues to climb – and, in some cases, as populations in those communities continue to decline – Lindvahl and other organizers see the CEO class as a chance to encourage tech savvy youngsters to stick around after graduating.

“For the first time in history, virtually everything a kid can dream of doing can be done anywhere,” Lindvahl said. “If you give them the knowledge, the contacts and the experience, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that their hometown might be the place where they have the best chance for success.”

Several years ago, students in the Effingham class were asked if they were likely to return to their hometown after college. At the beginning of the year, Lindvahl said, only three of 25 students said yes. After taking the class, that number jumped to 21.

He said students start thinking, “Now that I have this network of 80 or 100 people who are business professionals and community leaders ... this is the place where I have the best chance for success.”

In Jackson, Williamson and Perry counties, organizers are starting to take applications for teachers.

Students can apply for the class in the spring.

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