Thirty-one Baton Rouge area school administrators opted to spend part of their summer break this month visiting local businesses, learning how they operate so they can help prepare and connect students to potential employers.

“It’s just a wealth of knowledge that you don’t really know about unless you actually see it firsthand,” said Belinda Dixon, the counselor for juniors and seniors at Central High School.

Dixon joined assistant principals from two high schools for a week at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Louisiana, where she was exposed to the breadth of what the health insurance company does.

“I had no idea that all those positions inside of Blue Cross were there,” Dixon said. “I thought it was just sales.”

The educators are participating in a summerlong fellowship called “Pathways to Prosperity,” organized by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber. It’s the fifth year the business lobbying organization has brought educators to workplaces for an up-close look at how they function.

In the first four years, the participants were all classroom teachers. This year, BRAC targeted individuals who work in the school office: principals, assistant principals, counselors and career coaches. More than 70 applied and 31 were accepted.

“We decided to go for the decision-makers at the school,” explained Ethan Melancon, policy and research project manager for BRAC.

The program also runs longer this year. In previous years, teachers wrapped things up with a final one-day debriefing session, in which they devised a lesson plan to bring back to their school, incorporating what they learned. This year, Melancon said, school administrators have three more informational sessions before the start of the new school year to expand on what they learned in their site visits.

Seven Baton Rouge area school districts are partnering with seven local employers. The school districts pay about $2,000 each, while the employers pay $1,000 per educator they sponsor.

BASF is the biggest corporate sponsor this year, underwriting the cost of 10 educators this summer.

Blythe Bellows Lamonica, a communications manager with BASF, said the summer program helps bring educators up to speed on an ever-changing employment landscape.

“It’s an opportunity to get a really in-depth look at industry in a short period of time,” Lamonica said.

Lamonica said BASF also likes the fellowship because it allows the German chemical giant the chance to show the range of jobs available that require only a two-year college degree or that need only a certification. Indeed, part of BASF’s tour this week was a visit to River Parishes Community College to see what that institution has to offer.

“Success is no longer defined by a four-year degree,” Lamonica said. “There are real career opportunities for folks who don’t go on a four-year path.

“Pathways to Prosperity” takes its name from an influential 2011 study by the Harvard College of Education. The study has been influential in the expansion in recent years of alternatives to four-year college degrees. Louisiana incorporated insights from the paper into its Jump Start program.

Beyond showcasing alternatives to four-year degrees, Melancon said the program is meant to bring key educators exposure to a business world that many of them rarely encounter.

“Students and teachers didn’t know what was happening beyond the gates of some of these places,” he said.

At Sparkhound, a digital consulting firm based in Baton Rouge, three school administrators had a crash course in problem-solving, a key need for this firm.

On Thursday, they arrived to a problem that has been used to vex children and adults alike for years: the marshmallow challenge.

The threesome spent 18 minutes — the challenge can go as long as 45 minutes — to convert strands of spaghetti, tape and string into a structure capable of bearing the weight of a surprisingly heavy marshmallow. They failed.

Curtis Heroman, a principal consultant with Sparkhound, showed them that failure is by far the norm.

“You either get this, ‘Ta da’ moment, or more often you get this, ‘This isn’t gonna work the way I thought it would,’ ” Heroman said.

A big part of their problem was waiting too long, until the last couple of minutes to put the marshmallow on top.

Heroman said that’s similar to how business school graduates attack the problem, that they spend too much time looking for the perfect solution. But by contrast kindergartners do relatively well because they don’t wait, what Heroman describe as “prototyping.”

“Kindergartners make the marshmallow the center of their problem. They start prototyping, they start building immediately,” Heroman said. “If you say. ‘Ready, set, go!’ they’re grabbing spaghetti and they’re just building stuff.”

Information technology works a lot like that these days. Firms such as Sparkhound no longer wait months or years to try out their software. Instead, they constantly make prototypes on the way to the final solution.

“We do this in IT all the time. We call it the agile methodology,” Hermoman said. “We build a small thing every two weeks. We put it in front of users saying, ‘Use it, let me know what you think.’ ”

At Blue Cross Blue Shield Louisiana on Thursday, educators spent time with the insurer’s data analysis team where a strong ability to communicate is crucial.

Blue Cross to acquire Vantage Health parent in north Louisiana

Jason Ouyang, director of advanced analytics, described his shop as the “CIA” of the insurer, the place where they analyze a vast array of data from medical practitioners and patients as they seek ways to improve the “health outcomes” for customers.

In conveying their analyses, common language is prized and “business language” is looked down on.

Jack Holloway, a health informatics consultant with Blue Cross who graduated from Catholic High and later LSU, recommended that schools interested in helping prepare students for his field spend more time converting their papers into presentations meant for a wider audience.

“We have a motto: If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it,” Holloway said.


Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.