With Love and Laughter, Community Education Celebrates Two Notable Retirees

The 2024-25 school year will mark the 50th anniversary of the West Des Moines Community Schools (WDMCS) Community Education Department. The department plans to recognize the anniversary with different milestones throughout the year. The celebration is a little bittersweet: this spring, Community Education (CE) is saying goodbye to two mainstays of the department with 60 years of combined experience. Kids West Program Supervisor Amy Dvorak and Continuing Education Coordinator Sue Otte will retire just before the anniversary, after careers full of friendship, laughter, and devoted service to WDMCS students and families.

L-R: Amy Dvorak and Sue Otte.

Both Sue and Amy joined CE in different roles than they hold now. Sue was hired to manage an initial version of the district’s preschool program, and Amy was working as a site leader, classroom associate, and substitute teacher when she stepped into the Kids West leadership role. While before- and after-school care and educational programming for youth and adults may sound dissimilar, both roles fall under CE. The department serves students, families, and the district community through a variety of outreach programs including Kids West child care, programming for youth and adults, intercultural outreach, service learning, and even facility rentals.

Amy and Sue also seem different at first glance — Amy is known for her deep well of empathy, while Sue is considered the department’s prankster. But a closer look reveals that the two are much more similar than different, perhaps a side effect of so many years in a tight-knit department that considers its members family. Both Amy and Sue are described as warm and hard-working, and they are deeply dedicated to the district’s families and community. They also shy away from recognition, repeatedly lifting their colleagues and staff up to receive credit. Housed at the Learning Resource Center district offices, both depend on staff in the schools to carry out their programs.

Kids West has the best staff. They work so hard to prepare, taking care of the kids and loving them. (The kids are) surrounded by good people. — Amy Dvorak

Sue similarly credited the WDMCS teachers who teach the classes she manages. “A lot depends on the teachers,” she said. “The fact that they’ll teach after school and in the summer is something a lot of other districts might not have. It makes a big difference when they’re willing and excited. It wouldn’t be possible to have this without them.”

Photos from Community Education's youth classes.

While Sue has most recently operated as a department-within-a-department of one, Amy has two close colleagues who help her keep Kids West running smoothly. Program Coordinator KJ Yaeger has worked alongside Amy for 33 years, and Program Assistant Kris Gardner marked 30 years of service this year.

“It’s hard for me to think about anything with me without (KJ) too,” Amy admitted. From the annual “Noon” Year’s Eve party Kids West throws for students at the end of the year to times when the two decorated cookies for their entire staff, “my memories are of the things KJ planned,” Amy said. And with Kris, Amy knew Kids West families were in good hands when it came to registration and scheduling.

“Kris always took care of our families,” she said. “I never had to worry about it because I knew she was taking care of them.”

That sincere care is a trademark of the program Amy helped build during her 34 years with WDMCS. It can be rare for employees in the child care industry to stay with one organization, but Kids West has many long-term staff, including those who went through the program as students. Community Education Director Shahna Janssen credits Amy for creating a positive culture through genuine relationships with students, families, and staff.

“Amy has impacted thousands of lives,” Janssen said. “We had kids who are now employees or parents of kids in our program. She’s walked alongside so many people through so many life circumstances — wonderful things and tragic things.” She added, “The biggest thing you find out about Amy is she leads with her heart. I always think of her as the heart of Community Ed.”

Photos from the Kids West Olympics and other activities.

That heartfelt perspective was a notable strength during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. Kids West was the first WDMCS program to return in-person, starting in July 2020. The Kids West sites tested everything in the many versions of the return-to-learn plan, from taking students’ temperatures to social distancing and new ways of learning online. It soon became clear Kids West needed additional support for students who had been isolated and outside their normal routines. When three Kids West leaders all had the idea to use funding available during the pandemic to hire social-emotional/behavior specialists, they knew it was the next right step for students. Janssen describes the two new positions as one of the most impactful things CE has done for Kids West during Amy’s tenure.

“She leaves a strong legacy and a strong foundation,” Janssen said.

Sue’s youth and adult programs have also undergone sizable changes. The rise of YouTube, classes hosted by business owners themselves, and other new ways of learning changed the youth and adult programming space over the years. Sue carefully watched trends and shifted CE’s programming to serve students after school and adults in two specific areas: careers and parenting. Sue knows the programs are valuable for learning, but also sees them as a way for community members to connect with the district.

It’s an opportunity for the community to get into the schools. It’s not just for students. The buildings are accessible for anyone. — Sue Otte

A more concrete change centers on the miniature city that hosts the popular Safety Town class. Safety Town teaches young children about safety awareness and preventive practices around fire, poison, strangers, and more. The actual Safety Town had seen few changes in the 30 years since its inception, but this spring, thanks to fundraising and hands-on efforts from the Kiwanis Club, Safety Town is getting a 21st-century update. Sue is organizing a ribbon-cutting ceremony for June 7, just before Safety Town opens to its first classes for the summer. The Safety Town update is a fitting final project for Sue, who Janssen describes as a true lifelong learner.

“She’s a curious person and likes to try new things and do new things,” Janssen said. “She’s always soaking in her culture and her community.”

As the school year comes to a close, Amy and Sue are both looking forward and back. Both had children graduate from Valley High School and work or student teach in the district. In retirement, Amy plans to take some time to explore her identity beyond Kids West and wants to travel to beautiful places around the world. Sue also plans to travel — her older daughter's family lives overseas — and perhaps become a school volunteer with her younger daughter, a teacher-librarian in a nearby district. As excited as they are for the future, it can be hard to picture their lives without CE, especially their friends in the department.

“One of the things over the years I’ve noticed is that if there is a big project or I’m trying to decide how to move forward, people are always really helpful and willing to work together,” Sue said. Amy agreed: “We’re all there to help each other.”

While their colleagues will miss them, they wish Sue and Amy the best as they retire — and they know both left a lasting mark on the programs they supervised. With the 50th anniversary of Community Education just around the corner, everyone, including these retirees, is looking forward to what comes next.