A champion for special education

Courtesy photo: Wendy Otheim is shown alongside her late brother, Art Hettinger, who was known as “The King of the Mall” in Aberdeen and was the inspiration for her career path. Otheim worked as a special education teacher for several years and has worked as the director of special services for the Brookings School District for the past couple years.

Brookings School District’s Otheim wins state, national Outstanding Special Education awards

BROOKINGS – A family connection sparked Wendy Otheim’s passion for improving special education, and now the Brookings School District official is being recognized for her efforts.

The district’s director of special services recently won the Outstanding Special Education Award for South Dakota as well as at the national level. 

Otheim will be recognized for her awards at the Second Joint Council of Administrators of Special Education/ National Association of State Directors of Special Education, Incorporated (CASE/NASDSE) Conference in Louisville, Kentucky, on Oct. 27-29.

There are 20 criteria that a candidate must fulfill in order to be considered for the award. They range from how much research the candidate has done to simply how well they interact with peers and students. Superintendent Klint Willert nominated Otheim for both the state and national awards.

Otheim is the first individual from South Dakota to have won this award, Willert said at this week’s school board meeting.

Otheim has an extensive background in special education services. The Aberdeen native went to Northern State University, where she received her undergraduate degrees in elementary education and special education. Otheim later received her master’s degree in special education and her post-master’s degree in education specialist in administration from the University of South Dakota. 

Otheim taught in Sioux Falls for 21 years as a special education and ESL classroom teacher. She began teaching at Children’s Care Hospital (which is now LifeScape); she moved onto teaching at Patrick Henry Middle School then taught first, third and fifth grade at Terry Redlin Elementary School. 

Later, she became a school board member for the Hartford School District for three years, which piqued her interest into getting into administration. She then became the special education director at West Central for seven years. 

After that, she began working as the director of special services for Brookings just over two years ago.

Otheim’s passion for bettering special education stems from her late brother, Art Hettinger, who had Down syndrome. 

“Back at that time (1961, when Hettinger was born), there weren’t a lot of education opportunities for students with disabilities,” Otheim said. “There were things happening at that time for education rights for people. Poverty and people of color and that was kind of pushing the movement for special education and students with disabilities.”

“When my brother was born, my parents were told he had leukemia along with Down syndrome, and their doctor told them to place him in an institution. And my mom and dad said, ‘No, we’re going to take him home and love him for as long as we can,’ and we loved him for 56 years,” Otheim said. Hettinger died in June 2018.

Otheim watched her parents advocate upon her brother’s behalf with education, Special Olympics and other services. He worked at the mall in Aberdeen and “was basically referred to as ‘The King of the Mall,’” Otheim said proudly. 

Thus began her professional and personal endeavor to better the special education system.

Otheim said she loves the position she is in. She gets to be a support for children, and she continually works with parents to create the best possible learning opportunity for their child. She also works on the state and federal level in addition to local policies. 

But chiefly, Otheim is also always reminding and advocating that individuals who have disabilities are human and need everyone’s compassion. 

The most difficult part of the job, Otheim said, is figuring out how to work within a small budget. It is challenging to try and predict spending needs because each student requires something different. The cost of helping one child with substantial needs can cost between $7,500-$8,000 a month.

According to the National Education Association, the federal government is spending less than half of what the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires for payment by law, creating an estimated $11 billion “shortfall for states and local school districts.” The IDEA was written in 1975 and requires the federal government to cover 40% of special education costs for public schools.

“I think it’s great where services are at now,” Otheim said. “But we’ve got a long way to go.”

Otheim believes that the United States is moving in the right direction for what children need for special education, but managing that with the ever-growing number of special needs students proves difficult. 

That, however, does not diminish her desire to continue working and helping those in need. 

“I’m not afraid to spend money I don’t have – and I’m going to – if it’s what’s best for the student.”

Contact Matthew Rhodes at [email protected]

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