Who would rise early to get to a class at 7:30, leave at 9 to spend a full day at school, return in the evening and even weekends to fulfill requirements, while also finishing homework, participating in sports and other extracurricular activities, and possibly even working a job? Well, 50 amazing high school seniors from all over Sangamon County, that’s who.
It is the highly competitive program called Sangamon CEO. CEO stands for Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities, now in its fifth year. Mary Jo Wood directs the program through her position as the director of the Regional Office of Career and Technical Education at Lincoln Land Community College. Two teachers, Rich Johnson and Nabih Elhajj, run the program day to day. Businesses, school districts and community leaders help promote, support and mentor students. Wood says, “There are 40 of these programs in six states. It continues to grow and is the best example of a true business and education partnership. Students get real-world experiences. I am humbled by the support from our 17 school districts, our teachers, business leaders, the advisory board and mentors that make this possible.”
The CEO program brochure states, “We are working to prepare our youth to become entrepreneurs and creative thinkers who contribute to the economic development and sustainability of Sangamon County.”
Students visit over 50 area businesses, hear over 100 speakers and learn communication and speaking skills while completing the Toastmasters program. They develop and then plan every aspect of an event, this year a 5K run which they’ve named the Zombie Apocalypse 5K, so-named because it will be held Saturday, Nov. 4, a week after Halloween and the day of a full moon. Planning required doing market analysis, developing a budget and marketing strategy, and planning all logistics.
Johnson laughs, “First, the students wanted T-shirts and had all kinds of fun ideas, and suddenly they realized they wouldn’t be able to charge a fee that would pay for these – plus insurance, porta potties, etc. and still have any money left.”
Earning money is essential because it is what serves as seed money for the next stage of the class, launching each student’s personal business during the second semester.
Each student prepares a business plan, with mentors helping them think through ideas. As Johnson explains, “It is all about vision, strategy and then execution.” Their business plan must be pitched to bankers and investors in a process similar to that used on the TV show, “Shark Tank.” Of course, each one hopes to get an investor or banker who will provide monetary support.
By the end of the year, Wood says, “The students gain such self-confidence. I love to see how they grow.” A former student agrees, “This is a class with endless opportunities; I have gained confidence and a sense of real business.”
A father of a student in Sangamon CEO applauds the program, “My son has grown so much and has learned communication skills that we look for from college grads applying at my place of business.”
Each February the teachers in the program visit area schools and pitch the program to high school juniors. They use an interactive approach, with a mock business planning exercise. Students must submit a narrative explaining their interest in entrepreneurship and what they can add, include three recommendations, and complete a survey in an online application. Selection is made without the reviewers knowing the gender, race or home school of the applicant. This year 78 applications were received for 50 spots. Students receive dual credit: two high school credits and six hours in business at Lincoln Land.
In past years, students have started businesses such as lawn-mowing, college dorm décor design, soy candles, custom pillows, outdoor painting and textile photo printing. Students have designed a Velcro-closed hospital “gown” that works like a shirt, developed a hot sauce, built desktop computers, made original jewelry, and designed shoe storage containers. And that’s just a small sampling of the creative ideas.
“These students give me energy. They light you up. They also give hope. There is so much negative press about our nation and state. If you walk in our classroom, the future looks wonderful,” says Johnson.
Zombie 5k Run
The Zombie Apocalypse 5K run/walk, sponsored by the students in the Sangamon CEO program, is Sunday, Nov. 5, 5:30 p.m. at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.
Parking near Gate 3 (off Peoria Road), pick up materials at “The Shed” building at Gate 3 starting at 3 p.m. Line up at 5 p.m. with the race starting at 5:30. $30 adults, $20 children and high school students.
Preregistration link: www.https://sangamonceo.com. Register by Nov. 2 to receive an event t-shirt.
People may register the day of the event.
Cinda Ackerman Klickna is a former English teacher at Southeast High School and the immediate past president of the Illinois Education Association. She knows firsthand just how creative students are and that they give us hope.