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Knox County CEO program enrolls biggest class yet

GALESBURG — Since the autumn of 2018, a Knox County Area Partnership program has encouraged high-schoolers to create and manage their own businesses, and while the future of schooling in the county remains in flux, the future of the program seems secure.

The Knox County CEO program will start its third year in the fall, and 13 students have signed up for it. According to KCAP director Ken Springer, this is the best turnout the program has yet seen.

The program has its own board of governance, including business and education officials. Since starting with six students in 2018 and five in 2019, this coming year the program will “finally hit the critical mass” its organizers say they were looking for with the program.

The program is open to any high school junior or senior in Knox County, in private and public schools, and takes up the first hour of the school day. The aim is to teach business skills in a “hands-on” manner. When the pandemic started in the spring, the class continued meeting remotely via teleconferences.

″(CEO) students are given a peek behind the scenes to show what it is like to be a business owner, and learn a lot about their community,” Springer said.

Some of these students receive dual credit from Carl Sandburg College for their experience, and are allowed to access the community college’s educational tools and library. For some, the appeal remains in the business creation, and they have kept their business going since the class ended.

DJ Cain is an alumni of the 2018-19 class and an operator of DJ Cain Poultry in Rio. He raises and sells meat chickens north of Galesburg, and he got his start as a businessman in the CEO program. This is not to say he did not have experience in agriculture, though.

“I was raised on a commercial hog farm and a corn and soybean operation,” he said. “That introduced me to raising crops and livestock, as well as the processes on the farm.”

While a high-schooler at ROWVA, he attended a presentation on the CEO program by Tiffany Springer and Robby Dunn, which encouraged him to take the class as he felt it would fit with his set of skills. Throughout the program, he toured businesses across the county, met business owners and employees, and learned about “the real scope” of area businesses, alongside sales, marketing and interpersonal skills.

This helped bring an already fledgling business into the next gear, he says.

“My project in the class was a continuation of my personal business at a much larger scale,” Cain said. “Before the CEO class, I was raising around 120 meat chickens per year, usually two groups of 60, and selling poultry to family friends.”

Last year, during the summer of 2019, he raised and marketed 600 chickens. He had spent his year in the CEO program preparing for the summer busy season. This year, he plans to raise 900 birds: 600 roosters and 300 4-pound fryer-sized birds.

“I utilized the remote learning period in March and April of my senior year to build large chicken tractors which allow the chickens to be grass fed, as I am able to move the coops to different pasture areas,” Cain said.

Cain plans to continue his business as he attends college this fall at the University of Illinois, and will then reevaluate whether to continue the business after graduation.


LoveAbel Creations is the product of Janice Abel, a recent graduate of Galesburg High School. She entered the CEO program last year after attending a February 2019 presentation that said anyone’s passion could be made into a business.

“At the time, I loved making greeting cards,” she said.

Hearing that something she loved could be a business, she quickly applied for the program and came aboard, starting a greeting card business that she has continued into the summer.

″(The program) was pretty great. I was able to meet people I wouldn’t have (before) because my classmates are from around the county,” Abel said. “And I was able to see Knox County in a different light.”

This in-person element has been a selling point for the program, Springer says. Students visit between 50 and 60 businesses yearly, and tours are hosted by business owners. Lessons on accounting, for example, will likely be taught by an actual accountant.

Entering a pandemic where in-person contact was especially forbidden early on was both a challenge and an opportunity.

“We successfully transitioned the program to meet remotely when COVID hit in March, and as a result I think we will be well-prepared if we have to start the school year off remotely,” Springer said. “One of the things we’ve been able to do is have our students talk to other CEO students across the country.”

It is not clear how many Illinois schools will choose to convene next year, although some districts are leaning toward a hybrid system that would see schools switching off attendance days and having a hybrid of online and in-person learning with social distancing and mask protocols in place.

The CEO group met by video call daily starting in March, and instead of ending with an open trade show like in previous years, they created commercials.

However things proceed next year, Springer says he thinks the program will be just fine.

“We’ll be OK, even if we are starting remotely,” he said. “We had to learn on the fly last year, but I think everybody did.”

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