Hidden behind laptops, sporting business-casual attire and ready to dive into projects for area companies, about 180 Minnetonka High School students could easily have been mistaken for interns at a Fortune 500 company — or even industry professionals.

Instead, the students were part of the Vantage advanced professional studies program, which gives business-minded high school students hands-on experience with the kind of projects that companies wrestle with every day.

Vantage is among a wave of new business professional programs emerging in high schools across the country, part of the drive to push teens to do more, earlier.

"My goal is to provide them with the best educational experiences and the most opportunities for success as possible," said Brent Veninga, a founder of Vantage and an advanced-placement economics teacher for the program. "I want them prepared."

Program organizers believe that real-life, challenging experiences will further career development for the students. The half-day program, which combines advanced high school courses with projects for business partners, is now in its third year at Minnetonka High School. The program includes five specialties, from health care and sports science to business analytics.

On Thursday morning, business analytics students' eyes grew wide at the hundreds of rows of an Excel spreadsheet that their teacher Erik Sill had asked them to parse. Some begged for help.

"I'm going to make you struggle with it at first," Sill said.

The students have worked with an impressive list of businesses: They helped Aspire Beverages figure out new product flavors, worked with Habitat for Humanity to create recommendations to lure a new generation of donors and made a presentation to Target executives.

The Vantage idea emerged out of lunch table discussions between Veninga and Chris Pears, who were both Minnetonka High School teachers.

Business professional programs like Minnetonka's have used a model developed by the Blue Valley Schools district in Overland Park, Kan. It's called CAPS, or Center for Advanced Professional Studies, which started in 2009.

Since then, the CAPS model has spawned similar programs in several schools across the country, including some in Iowa, Utah, Nebraska and Arizona. The CAPS network in Minnesota includes Shakopee and Alexandria.

An element that makes the program unusual is that it allows business partners to help develop curriculum. Educators have been leery about letting business leaders tinker with class lessons, but students are clearly benefiting, said Donna Deeds, regional executive director of Northland CAPS in Kansas and developer of the Blue Valley CAPS program.

"They are leapfrogging their peers," she said.

Katie Gray, a senior at Minnetonka High School, worked on a Vantage research project examining concussions last year. She loves the idea of medical school, but is in the business analytics track this year to see if she likes it better than medicine. Gray called her exposure to many different medical fields through the program "powerful."

The Shakopee CAPS program just kicked off this fall. It's begun sending its digital design-savvy students to the local branch of Shutterfly, an Internet-based image publishing service. Students leaning more toward health and medicine go to St. Francis Regional Medical Center for half the school day.

Pears, one of the founders, is working with other districts looking to replicate the model.

But there are challenges. Minnetonka's program is all funded by the district; it takes place at additional instructional space and requires that students provide their own transportation between the school and the off-site location. The Shakopee program, backed strongly by Shakopee superintendent Rod Thompson and the school board, is similar to starting a new course at the high school.

Part of the program's formula includes guest speakers and mentors in the community. Caribou Coffee founder and Punch Pizza co-owner John Puckett spoke to a group of students about his experience as an entrepreneur. The students asked questions about work culture and strategies at both stores and some took notes on their electronic devices.

Then Puckett announced the kicker: He had free pizza passes for the students.

The young, would-be professionals suddenly turned into high school students again and went wild.

Beena Raghavendran • 612-673-4569