Metro-East News

CEO Program lets high school students learn from business leaders

From left: Alan Plantz, Belleville West; Erik Faulkner, Belleville West; and David Rauckman, Belleville East; work on an exercise during their CEO training program.
From left: Alan Plantz, Belleville West; Erik Faulkner, Belleville West; and David Rauckman, Belleville East; work on an exercise during their CEO training program. News-Democrat

At 17 and in her final year in high school, Aliyah Gillespie has a plan.

The Swansea resident has her career goals set on becoming a dermatologist. For now she is one of a few chosen students receiving exclusive instruction from local business leaders to help her reach her career goals.

The senior at Althoff High School in Belleville is one of 15 high school seniors from Governor French Academy, Belleville West, Belleville East and Althoff high schools selected to participate in the first Belleville CEO Program. The program links aspiring entrepreneurs and business-minded students like Gillespie with local professionals from various metro-east businesses.

“I’ve never really taken a business class before and it was just something new and exciting that I thought I could take during my senior year, just to get some networking out there,” Gillespie said.

The CEO Program brings Belleville-area high school students interested in the business world to a special class that meets each day for an hour and a half before school. The program began last week with the start of the school year. Students meet for an hour and a half every day before their regular class schedules begin, from 7:30 to 9 a.m. The students assemble at different businesses that have invested in the program.

Belleville East High School teacher Julie Siebers leads the class each day at different sites through the fall and spring semester.

Siebers, who worked for CPI Corp. for 12 years before joining the faculty at Belleville East 14 years ago, said the program gives these students a unique experience and access to local professionals. Siebers said investors have made a three-year commitment to the program.

“I think the students may benefit just because it’s a non-traditional way of learning,” Siebers said. “So instead of sitting and listening to a teacher, they get to go visit 40 to 50 investors and see exactly how businesses are run, and I think it’s just a great way of learning.”

Last Friday, the students met in a conference room at Allsup Inc. in Belleville. Visiting the class that day was Kevin Pesko, president of the Bank of Belleville. Pesko, who sits on the board of the CEO Program, said he recognizes the unique opportunity and benefits that this program will provide local students focused on entering the business world.

“I think it’s great for the students to give them this kind of opportunity,” Pesko said. “They’ll look at the business community in a different way.”

Fellow board member Ed Hoering, of the certified public accounting firm Clifton Larson Allen in Swansea, said he could have used this program when he was in high school.

“When I was first introduced to it, it kind of hit home,” Hoering said. “I wish they did something like this when I was in high school because I needed some help in finding out what I wanted to do. It took me a few years after high school to figure that out. I think this program will help people learn how to drive toward their passion and what they want to do in life.”

Malik Marks-McRath is a participant who would like to establish a business that focuses on natural and organic food and drinks. The 18-year-old Fairview Heights resident is a senior at Belleville East and said he has enjoyed the experience so far.

“I was just very interested in it because it said we have the opportunity to become young entrepreneurs and hopefully one day form my own business,” Marks-McRath said. “That was the main reason I was drawn to the program. Getting up early at 7:30 to be here, at first, I knew it was going to be a little difficult, but I like the responsibility that we have to take on to do that and I really wanted to be immersed in this type of environment because it’s so different from being behind a desk all day. We actually get to get up and go out and travel to different businesses and learn from many people in the business world. So I knew that was going to be really important for me.”

Heather Gosebrink, a 17-year-old senior at Althoff High School who lives in Shiloh, said she has also enjoyed her first week in the program and looks forward to the coming classes.

“I was interested in getting the opportunity to see if I would be interested in pursuing a business career after high school,” Gosebrink said. “So far, I’ve learned that leadership is very important in going into business and being able to work with everybody and becoming one in unity is very important going into the business world.”

Gillespie said she eventually wants to start her own dermatology practice, and the CEO Program is “the perfect class to see what I can do.”

“It’s very cool to be able to see kids from all different schools and at least get to meet new people,” she said. “And we’re all excited to be here.”

Contact reporter Will Buss at or 618-239-2526.