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Youth retention program initiated for area schools

When Emily Chermak of Willmar was in high school, she always expected she would go to a four-year college, likely out of state. Then her senior year she was introduced to a new class called Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities (CEO) being offered in Kandiyohi County. The CEO program not only changed her plans, it changed her life.

“The CEO program taught you who you are as a person,” Chermak said. “It’s a good way to get out of the classroom and learn hands-on.”

The CEO program is an entrepreneur class that gives juniors and seniors in high school access to real world, real life opportunities and experiences through area businesses.

While enrolled in the program, students visit businesses, create a class project and are mentored by area business leaders. By the end of the program, each student must create a business of their own.

The goal is to retain talented students after graduation, or at least bring them back after college, by showing students local, good paying jobs and business opportunities.

“What we’re trying to do with this program is strengthen this part of the world – southwest Minnesota – by growing our own and showing kids that we have the opportunities that are out there and available for them,” said Craig Oftedahl, superintendent of Luverne Public Schools. “They can earn a good living and they might be able to do it by coming right back here.”

That’s exactly what happened with Chermak. After going through the program, she signed up for online college classes and her mentor from the CEO program, an area business owner, hired her that fall.

The CEO program, offered by the nonprofit Midland Institute for Entrepreneurship, was started in Effingham, Ill. in 2008. By 2016, the program had been offered in 37 different communities across four states.

Now the program will be offered locally next year. Oftedahl said Luverne is officially committed, as is Pipestone Area Schools (PAS).

PAS Superintendent Kevin Enerson said he was excited about the collaboration because it may show students different options in the business world that require less college-level schooling, or potentially no college at all.

“It all comes down to how do we offer these opportunities to our students,” Enerson said. “I think it’s just great that we’re working together and having these conversations together. We haven’t always done that.”

Oftedahl reached out to area schools within 25 miles –– Hills Beaver Creek, Edgerton Public, Edgerton Southwest Christian, Pipestone Area Schools, Adrian and Ellsworth –– after learning about the program through the Southwest Initiative Foundation (SWIF) Grow Your Own Summit.

“We’ve got a lot of momentum started, but we wanted to invite people from the area,” Oftedahl said. “This isn’t just a Luverne initiative, this is a southwest Minnesota initiative.

What we’d like to do is have a nice group of people from lots of different areas come together and make this thing go.”

Mike Cox of Mainstreet Financial in Luverne, is a member of the steering committee for the CEO program and is helping to present the idea to regional community members.

His latest presentation was held in Luverne, June 19. Around 45 people attended, including several people from Pipestone.

“We are in the stages of trying to get this off the ground,” Cox said at an Edgerton Public school board meeting in May. “This is, in my opinion, a business initiative with school support. It takes students from school and creates opportunities within the business community for those students to learn what it takes to be an entrepreneur and what it takes to be in business.”

Cox said the program is “not a school program, it’s a business program. Kids are not sitting in a classroom learning business, economics and business management, they are out in the community, learning and working.”

The school districts pay no money to be involved with the program, “so it is owned and run by the business community,” said Tyler Gehrking, Willmar, program facilitator since 2015, and a former economics teacher.

The CEO program content from Midland Institute for Entrepreneurship costs $25,000. Cox said those funds have already been committed. Participating area businesses then invest $1,000 for three years, according to Cox. The business investments help pay for the facilitator and provide anonymous scholarship money to students who can’t afford some of the essentials they’ll need for the class, such as business casual clothing.

Currently, there are 15-20 businesses signed up to participate in the program, halfway to the goal of 30-40 businesses. Locally, Fey Industries and DeBoer Chevrolet in Edgerton are two businesses on board, as is First Bank and Trust and First Farmers and Merchants, according to Steering Committee member Lisa Dinger. First Bank and Trust Community Bank President Kevin Paulsen is also speaking with other businesses in the area about participating.

Businesses can also participate by becoming mentors, hosts, board members, a facilitator or by donating any amount to the CEO Friends fund, which helps the program with scholarship money and program costs.

In return for their investment, businesses help create and find a new pool of employees from which to recruit, and strengthen their community ties.

“I have relationships with other businesses in town from the program that I wouldn’t have had otherwise,” said Ryan Thielen, director of customer support for ProCore, a business that participated in the Willmar program.

Program particulars

When the program begins in the 2018-2019 school year, 20 students will have been selected through a rigorous application process, Cox said. At least initially, the program will include students from each school district that signs up, said Lisa Dinger, steering committee member.

“We’re bringing all these investors in, we want to bring some kids from all the communities,” Dinger said.

Those selected will attend classes five days a week from 7:15 to 8:45 a.m. Prerequisites for students are that they must be able to dress business casual and act appropriately, must be extremely punctual, and must be able to provide their own transportation.

Students will visit area businesses throughout the year and hear from 20-40 guest speakers. The class will not require tests or homework in the traditional sense, however students will create their own business and present it to local banking investors, entrepreneurs, business mentors and at an annual trade show.

“Students will graduate from this class owning a business,” Cox said.

Students earn both high school and college credit for the course, according to Oftedahl. There is also a networking outcome. Students finish the class with hundreds of business contacts from the community that they can reference in the future, Gehrking said.

Gehrking said students can fail at their business, but not fail the class itself. And 15 percent of the grade, he said, was based on the student’s personal growth.

“When they fail they learn,” Gehrking said. “If we truly want students to own their successes and feel proud, we have to allow them to own their failures. Kids today don’t do that very well –– they really don’t know what a failure is and how to deal with it emotionally.”

Chermak, who participated in the first year of the program in Kandiyohi County, enjoyed learning from so many different businesses, and how the class was focused on each individual student. If she failed, it was her own fault; if she succeeded, it was due to her own hard work.

“We learn by doing,” Gehrking said. “The students start to learn the things that make them successful in life, not just in business. This is a life class with a business flavor – it just so happens that the things that make you successful in business or entrepreneurship are the things that really make you successful in life.”

Area schools have until Aug. 1 to sign up to be a part of the program. A board of directors for the program, approximately 11 members, will be selected in August. The board of directors will then select a facilitator to run the program.

By: Jen Burris
Source: Star Online 

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