Blue Ridge Bank uses one of its new branch locations as an innovative, hands-on classroom for local high school students.
By Beth Mattson-Teig
High school students in Independence, Mo., are getting a behind-the-scenes look at the world of community banking thanks to an innovative partnership between Blue Ridge Bank and Trust Co. and the Independence School District (ISD).
They have teamed up to offer a course that teaches students about banking and personal finance. Offered as part of the ISD’s Academies Program Business Pathway, the “academies” are learning communities that teach students real-life skills and job training, helping guide them toward college and career success across different pathways in business, arts and education, industrial technology, public service and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).
The $762 million-asset community bank’s involvement started in 2018 when Blue Ridge Bank president Bill Esry happened to sit next to the ISD superintendent at a local rotary club meeting. The superintendent was looking to brainstorm ways the school district could fit a banking course into the Business Pathway. Esry’s response was immediate: “We would love to help.”
Blue Ridge Bank decided to create a new branch location located near the district’s three high schools that could also house a classroom. In addition to classroom learning, students would have access to hands-on learning through internships at the branch. “We were in from the very beginning, because I just loved the concept of exposing these kids to the financial system,” says Esry.
Creating a classroom
The new Blue Ridge Bank branch opened on the city’s historic Independence Square in May 2019 and welcomed its first class of students that fall. The program teaches banking and financial literacy topics, including why checks need to be endorsed and how to apply for a loan. Part of what the community bank provides is that “real world” education that students can’t get from a textbook.
“The program wouldn’t be the program it is without the bank and the school being involved as equal partners. … [Blue Ridge Bank] answers the ‘what’ and we answer the ‘why.’”
—Pamela Gill, Independence School District
Blue Ridge Bank department leaders and staff talk to students about what it is they do and how the various pieces of the puzzle fit together, adds Esry.
“The program wouldn’t be the program it is without the bank and the school being involved as equal partners,” says Pamela Gill, a business education teacher with the ISD. As part of the Missouri Education Department business finance curriculum, the school partners with the bank to incorporate an internship component. Students taking the business finance class typically spend six hours per week in the classroom and four hours per week interning at the bank.
The internship provides active learning, allowing students to make connections, notes Gill. For example, students learn how to cash a check for a customer in the bank, while in the classroom they learn about what happens to a check when it leaves the bank. “So, the bank answers the ‘what’ and we answer the ‘why,’” she says.
Another goal of the program is to teach students how to work in a professional setting. As community bank employees, every student intern goes through the standard hiring process, including an application and interview. There are discussions around dress codes and punctuality. Students also get to work with customers, notes Esry. “As all community bankers know, you don’t always know what the customer is going to say,” he says. “So, you have to be prepared and know what you’re doing, and I think we’ve impressed that on them and shown them it is something they can do and be good at.”
Introduction to community banking
The ISD Business Pathway program is an opportunity to show students what community banking is all about, to the extent that some consider a career in the industry. To date, the bank has hired a few students out of the program and expects to hire more. One of those students is Cailyn Cordell, hired as a teller after she graduated in the spring of 2021. She now works part-time while attending Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City, Mo.
One of the things Cordell valued about Blue Ridge Bank’s program was the ability to apply what she read about and discussed in class. “When we transitioned to computers and started doing transactions and talking with customers, it made a lot more sense and it was easier to understand,” she says. “People also were really patient and willing to teach you, because they knew you were trying to learn.”
Community involvement is par for the course for Blue Ridge Bank. “It’s a really nice fit to be working with the school district to provide this type of financial education and experience,” says Esry. The bank also has worked with students in other ISD Academy programs. Broadcast students filmed a commercial about the bank, and industrial arts students built a coffee bar and counters that have been incorporated into one branch location.
“I think community banks are challenged by the structure of our industry,” says Esry, “and this program is a wonderful opportunity to get outside the normal box to deliver our services, our philosophies and make a difference in the community.”
Beth Mattson-Teig is a writer in Minnesota.