Mankato program helps students develop skills, transition into community

A woman holds up a hand mixer while talking with a young man.
Rebecca Zenk (right) shows Braiden Reinhart, 18, the different functions of a mixer while making blueberry muffins at the INSITE program in Mankato, Minn., on Friday.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Inside an old storefront in downtown Mankato last week, 18-year-old Braiden Reinhart was learning how to make blueberry muffins.

He cracked an egg into a bowl, stirred it with milk and muffin mix, and watched as his teacher, Rebecca Zenk, showed him the functions of a hand mixer, before handing it over so he could finish the batter.

Making muffins on his own is one of the many things Reinhart is learning to do in a new program through the Mankato school district that prepares its special education students for life beyond graduation. Reinhart has already learned how to reassemble flashlights, wash windows and use a snow blower.

Four people stand at a counter in front of bowls and boxes of muffin mix.
Garrison Spangler (far right) and Robin Arndt (second from left) give cooking instruction to Makenna Johnson (left) and Braiden Reinhart, both 18, in Mankato last week.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

And there’s a lot more on his list.

“I’ve been talking about driving and stuff,” he said.

The program where he’s learning all of that — Individuals Navigating Skills for Independence, Transition and Employment, or INSITE — launched this year. It’s the first time Mankato Area Public Schools has offered an off-site transitional program for students with disabilities outside the classroom.

Samantha Steinman, the district’s assistant director of special education, said each of the five enrolled student’s developmental plans are individualized and catered to their needs.

“We meet them where they’re at,” Steinman said. “We hope to progress and build a level of independence.”

Inside the leased former office space downtown are stations where students can practice the life skills they’ll need to be independent. There’s a bedroom setup where students can learn how to fold and hang up clothes; a laundry room to practice loading the machines; and a kitchen where students cook up meals for themselves, like smoothies and muffins.

A teen holds up a laptop that's playing a movie to her ear.
Makenna Johnson, 18, holds her Chromebook closer to her ear to get a better listen on Friday during some down time at the INSITE program.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

Makenna Johnson, 18, another student in the program, eventually wants to learn how to cook her favorite dish: spaghetti and meatballs.

While the structure of a day at INSITE varies depending on each student’s needs and skill level, Steinman said that sometimes they like to focus on work-like activities in the morning, followed by activities that reflect what a person might do after coming home such as doing the laundry or washing dishes.

Between lessons, students also have “choice time,” breaks within the learning day when they can explore hobbies to pass the time and to relax while exploring their interests.

The Mankato district also hopes to connect with local business partners to offer unpaid work experience for the INSITE students so that they have opportunities to build relationships with community members and employers, eventually integrating themselves.

Two people open an oven door.
Rebecca Zenk (left) and Makenna Johnson, 18, pull out a pan of blueberry muffins on Friday.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

“Our goal is to always continue to find opportunities for all of our students, and particularly students with disabilities after those four years of high school, Steinman said. “So that's that's a passion of ours and our special ed department, just always finding unique ways and opportunities to engage students and give them opportunities for their future.”

The program gives students the opportunity to practice skills they might need, whether it’s at home doing daily chores and tasks, or at work where their employer may ask them to organize or sort.

“Exploring new opportunities, cooking new foods, we know that for many of our students repetition is really important,” said Mankato schools Superintendent Paul Peterson.

“Getting into a rhythm of how you do things over and over. It’s all that practice work that for some of our students, for some segments of our population, it just flat out takes longer, and so a space like our INSITE program provides them the opportunity to do that.”

A teen uses a marker to write "Makenna" on a ziplock bag.
Makenna Johnson, 18, writes her name on a zip-close bag, as she prepares to take home blueberry muffins she made during a life skills class at the INSITE program in Mankato last week.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

When Peterson arrived in the district last year, the program was already well into its planning stages. But its goals of giving students the chance to practice independence beyond the classroom hit close to home. His 21-year-old son Evan has autism, and benefitted from a similar program

“These [programs] are really important for kids and families as we navigate our communities,” he said. “Evan had a great public education experience. He had dedicated staff, people who cared and loved him and helped him be as successful as he could in those environments. And so, I know he’s well on his way continuing to grow.”

Mankato Schools’ long-range vision for the INSITE program is far-reaching. Peterson said they would eventually like to collaborate with other districts to share resources and staffing so that students in the broader region can have access to the off-site transitional program, too.

Some smaller, rural districts in Minnesota don’t have specialized facilities or resources that are feasible to build on their own or they don’t have many students to sustain their own programs.

A teenager holds a bowl as a man scrapes out muffin mix from it.
Braiden Reinhart, 18, holds a mixing bowl as Garrison Spangler puts blueberry muffin mix into a baking pan last week.
Jackson Forderer for MPR News

However, many — like the Southern Minnesota Education Consortium and the Southwest West Central Service Cooperative — often collaborate with fellow member districts, forming a consortium or cooperative that shares resources with each other in a centralized location.

Peterson said he hopes that an expansion can connect more students in the region to training that will help them with the transition to independent living and employment — things that can’t be learned only in a traditional classroom.

“That’s where the learning will really become meaningful, and already has become meaningful for our kids,” he said.

Hannah Yang is MPR News’ newest regional news reporter. She covers the communities south of the Minnesota River in southwestern Minnesota, from the South Dakota border all the way to Mankato and south to Iowa. She’s new to the region, and would love to hear your stories. Share news tips, ideas or just say hello at @HannahMYang on Twitter, or email her at

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