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Community Spotlight: Pathways to Life Summer Transition Program

An interview with Mark Schwartz and Elise Knopf

1/27/2021 10:51:28 AM

Circular pictures of Mark (smiling) and Elise (smiling) among green, blue, and purple dots.

Community interview with Mark Schwartz and Elise Knopf with Pathways to Life (Summer Transition Program hosted at the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf). Interviewed by Kaitlyn Mielke.

Please tell us a bit about the Pathways to Life Summer Transition Program through the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf (MSAD). How did it come into being, and what's the goal?

Elise: The goal of the transition program is to offer an opportunity for deaf, hard of hearing and deafblind students to have learning experiences in the summer. We hope it will enhance their skills and increase their knowledge about vocational and postsecondary choices, as well as provide a social environment where they can interact with peers. Minnesota’s contingent to the National Deaf Center’s Engage for Change/State has always had this dream of having a program available for Minnesotans. The Minnesota Department of Education is the primary provider of state funds, Vocational Rehabilitation Services provides some funding through federal Pre-ETS dollars, and school districts help pay through student ESY funds. MSAD provides the housing and staff for the program, which is open to any student living in Minnesota who meets criteria and has ESY checked off on their IEP.

Who benefits from this program?

Elise: Any student who is deaf, hard of hearing or deafblind in Minnesota!!

Mark: Deaf, Hard of Hearing, and Deafblind students with strong desires in learning more about post-secondary planning primarily benefit from this program as it allows students to recalibrate their orientation on what happens after high school. Students study and discuss the available post-secondary resources that are specifically designed for them. The more students know what’s out there, the better they can steer their direction to the future that aligns to their career goals.

In addition to the students' benefits, Vocational Rehabilitation counselors are given many opportunities to connect with their students. By building this connection, the counselors were able to sustain positive relationships, learn about students’ areas of strengths, share relevant resources. This connection is so valuable to the process of seamless transition between high school and the life after high school because research shows that the earlier high school students builds a transition support system correlates positive success rate in finding jobs, attending training programs, and/or accepting in a college program. 

What areas does the program focus on?

Mark: There are 5 critical areas that the program focuses that aligns to the transition areas that IEP typically addresses: home/daily living skills; recreation and leisure; community living experience/participation; and post-secondary education, employment, and job training. Because the program is based on students’ needs, the focus of the programming varies each year, depending on the group. In the development and customization of the activities and support students’ current skills, interests, and goals will be thoroughly considered.

What kind of activities are included through the program?

Elise: Career Exploration, Resume development, 1:1 meetings with Vocational Rehabilitation counselors and listening to panels of DHH adults working in various fields, introduction to community resources, self-advocacy skill development, social networking, job application practice, job tours, and making a poster board to advertise student skills (spotlight moment). We hope to introduce work experience opportunities and job shadowing in the future. 

How can prospective participants get involved with the summer program?

Mark: The prospective participants can apply through completing the initial application by downloading. Applicants are encouraged to have in-depth discussion with their parents and IEP case manager to ensure that transition goals/activities in the IEP and the summer program overlap by checking off the ESY in the document. The deadline for initial application is March 8th. If there are questions on how to ensure that IEPs are prepared for this programs or the application process, please feel free to contact

After the initial application, an in-depth survey will be shared to prospective participants so that the programming will be customized to participants' specific career goals, interests, and skills. Then, the students just show up and actively participate throughout the program! 

What's on the schedule for the 2021 summer program? How has the current situation with the pandemic influenced those plans?

Elise: Same as above listed activities, with the hope of adding work experience and job shadowing. The pandemic has limited those opportunities, as employers are not willing to have people “visit” their worksites right now.

Mark: Although the entire program will be online based, from June 14-25th, the program will be packed with career related activities that involve guest speakers, round table lunch discussions, practice interview runs, online games, and panel of professionals.

What do you hope the participants take home from participating in the summer program?

Mark: We hope that the students will feel more confident when navigating through the transition process by finding jobs, contacting appropriate resources, and having essential communication skills. We also hope that students will connect with professionals, share their talents/interests, and make new lifelong friends.

What were some of the highlights from previous summer programs?

Elise: Definitely being able to have panelists on a national level participating, and not just from Minnesota. The first year highlights involved more social opportunities, going to a Twins game, riding the Light Rail and having in person time together in the evenings to cook and socialize.

Mark: Students' stories speak for themselves. Here are the actual quotes: 

“I got better at talking with others in the group. I learned about interviewing skills, and participated in a mock interview. I now know what to do!”

“PTL helped me become more open to different ideas. I feel more self-confident.”

“I loved the community service experiences and cooking meals with my friends.”

“I am more confident because I learned so much about my options during this program.”

“I learned about the carpentry program available at South Central College, which was exciting to me.” 

”I grew a lot during the two week program. I was homesick and am proud of myself for staying with the program!”

“I found the job site tours very beneficial.”

“I reviewed my audiogram and learned about how to read it.”

“I did laundry for the first time!”

“I now know how to analyze myself; what I like, what I don’t like, and I also learned about budgeting.”

Anything you'd like to share or add?

Mark: Thanks to wonderful support by the Minnesota Department of Education and Vocational Rehabilitation, the cost for parents/guardians for students to attend the program is free! This is a wonderful opportunity for students to become more prepared, practice interviews, learn valuable resources, and meet new friends!!

[Pathways to Life is for] current 9th grade through students who haven’t graduated (12+)

  • Program date: Distance Learning: June 14-25, 2021 (no weekends)
  • Initial Application Deadline: March 8, 2021 There are spaces available!
  • Students meet/network employers, practice interviews, learn community transition resources, and make new friends to get ready for post-secondary adulthood life!
  • Indicate Extended School Year in student's IEP. Resources and guidance in writing the indication are available. NOTE: If current students' ESY hasn't been indicated due to the IEP meeting timeline, the student/child can still apply. Can send updated IEP with ESY when appropriate.
  • No tuition charge to Parents/Guardians. Most, if not - tuition costs are covered, by MDE, MNCDHH, and VR.

Contact info for more information about the MSAD Pathways to Life Transition Program 

Contact to discuss additional services and accommodations (e.g. interpreter, para, intervener, transportation, etc). 

Visit the Summer Transition Program website for more information.

About Mark and Elise

Mark Schwartz is a Deaf/HH Teacher with specialty in Transition. He currently works with Transition age students in Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf to prepare them for a successful, smooth journey into adulthood.

Elise Knopf is the current Rehabilitation Area Manager for the St. Paul Deaf and Hard of Hearing Team with Vocational Rehabilitation Services. She enjoys providing support and resources for transition age students to achieve their dreams. Her team includes five counselors, including one that is the point of contact for MSAD, and two that are the point of contact for MDS. The team covers the seven county metro area and provides consultation statewide.


MNCDHH would like to recognize the following contributors for the Pathways to Life Summer Transition Program: the Minnesota Department of Education, Minnesota Hands & Voices, the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, and the stakeholders of the Collaborative Plan. 

The Collaborative Plan is a network of agencies, schools, and organizations that work together to create positive, systemic changes to achieve better education and career outcomes for students who are deaf, deafblind, and hard of hearing.


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