Independence School District Superintendent Dale Herl was thinking about a new capstone project for the high school students in the district.

The district already had the All Things Independence apparel store and A Taste of Independence bakery, both operated by students.

When Herl was visiting the Square one day, he noticed there were no longer any banks, and he had his idea for the next capstone. He visited with a fellow superintendent in Minnesota who had run a banking operation at the high school and learned what it took to implement that program.

Herl, though, wanted the project to be not in the schools but on the Square because of its central location to William Chrisman, Truman and Van Horn high schools.

Then he approached Blue Ridge Bank and Trust Co. and its president, Bill Esry, a Truman High School graduate and a third-generation Independence resident who was on board with the idea.

"We were looking for a partner that would be willing to put a stand-alone bank here. I didn't want one at a high school, to follow the model that we have with our other store and bakery, so we approached Blue Ridge Bank and Trust to see if they had any interest," Herl said. "I was surprised that they were excited with it. It takes a special commitment to allow kids to come into your business, and also have a dedicated space where we could have classes, which is what we're going to have the opportunity right here just off the bank site."

Blue Ridge will open its ninth branch on the southwest corner of Lexington Avenue and Liberty Street in May, and the new finance and banking courses – open to all three high schools – will begin there when the next school year begins in August.

"We believe we're the only school district in the country that will have this model," Herl said. "Some have banks within their schools, and they're more of a credit union situation, but nowhere have we seen or heard where it is an off-site bank in which the students get to work in as well as have the classes associated with that job experience."

A classroom will be just to the right of the main entrance to the bank branch.

"We will have a teacher here, and they'll take some of their finance and banking classes here but then they'll be able to leave the classroom and take 20 steps and be inside a working bank," Herl said. "... Kids will be able to leave their classroom and go right into a banking experience where they learn about, first of all, the finance piece, but also to learn how to be a professional, and how they need to interact with the public every day. What a great experience for our kids."

Esry is excited to not only help the students learn the profession, but to give them actual experience, like he got when he started in the mailroom at Blue Ridge as a student and eventually working his way up to president.

"I think it's just a great, great program," Esry said. "We're all about financial literacy. ... I'm really anxious for us to sit down with a personal finance class because I remember when I took mine at Truman. It was as a sophomore, and not as a freshman. I'm just so excited about what we can bring as a partner to the learning process. There is a difference in financial institutions, there is a difference between the big Wall Street people and the money managers at a community bank, and there are ways that we approach the business that we'd really like to expose these students to."

Students will learn all aspects of finance and banking, including savings, loans, operations, audits, the history of banking, organizational structure, marketing and customer service. There will also be opportunities for internships and full-time and part-time employment at the bank.

Hannah Noel, a junior at William Chrisman who hopes to go into the personal finance business, is excited about the opportunity.

"I think it's an amazing process to be in because I started in a freshman academy and grew up all the way into it. I've been a part of multiple capstones and it's an amazing experience to be a part of," she said.

Esry said at least two full-time employees will be at the bank each day to assist the students, and the teacher will be on site as well during banking hours.

"The senior capstone students will actually be part-time employees. They have to to work in the bank," Esry said. "We'll have to go through the hiring process like they would anywhere else, but we will expose them and allow them to side-by-side, be it working with the ATM, working with the night drop, working with a loan app for a car, working with balance inquiries, working with helping customers. ... And we're happy to be possibly picking up some great new associates."

Herl is eager to get the program started, and happy to be able to bring back a banking presence on the Square in the process.

"From the school district standpoint, we're excited because we think this fits numerous needs outside of education, and the fact that Blue Ridge Bank was willing to make an investment on the Square, where if you look over the last 20 to 30 years, all of the banks that have disinvested in the Square and moved, for the first time in a number of years, we have someone moving back," he said. "And that's really exciting for the school district, for the opportunity for our kids, but as well for the community and the Square as well."