Southwest director of special services retires after 14 years

Wednesday, May 27, 2015
Special Services Director Wanda Smith of Southwest schools reads over paperwork in her office. Smith has served as director for the last 14-1/2 years, and she has a 22-year career in the education profession. Julia Kilmer

Smith: Recurring theme of career is 'always do your best'

Wanda Smith, Director of Special Services with Southwest schools, will be retiring June 30 after 14 years of service at the district in special education and special services.

Twenty-two years ago, she began her career, getting her bachelor's in elementary education from Southwest Missouri State University, with an emphasis in special education.

"My first job was working at Pierce City schools in special education for five years," Smith said. "I always had a soft spot for the kids that struggled, and have always been for the underdog. Then, I taught second grade for two-and-a-half years, then was with Southwest schools for the last 14-and-a-half years."

During her time at Southwest, Smith was in charge of special education and special services, which included overseeing federal programs such as English as a second language (ESL), Title 1 programs overseeing reading and math, and the homeless program. In special education, she ensured children with a wide range of disabilities, whether related to learning, intellectual or health, had their needs met and were given every advantage to help them succeed.

"Whatever disability was a category with the government, we served," Smith said. "We placed them in programs that allowed them to be successful in their school career. We've had high-needs kids, and that's what we deal with.

"They've all been great kids. We always strive to get them back to regular education if possible. We've had several successes. The goal is always reintegration."

In special services, Smith acted as a liaison, ensuring the school was in compliance with federal program requirements.

"Expectations with the federal programs are high," she said. "And, I've worked hard and long to meet those expectations."

During her career, Smith developed an interest in administration and decided to add to her education.

"I got my masters in education from Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, then took some extra courses to receive a certification in administration," she said.

Smith has so many good memories and experiences during her career, it was hard to pinpoint any one in particular.

"All the years seem to have gone by very fast, and all the years have been good," Smith said. "Over the years, I have gotten to work with a lot of fine teachers and students. Fourteen years doesn't seem like it's been that long. We work as a well-oiled machine here."

Parents' involvement has been a big factor in student success, too, recalling a strong turnout at an awards ceremony just the night before.

"It's been a great time here, but it's time to do something different," she said.

Working in the profession has not been without its challenges.

"Special education is a challenging job, but always rewarding," Smith said. "I get to help a lot of kids.

"Special education is never fully funded. We don't get nearly enough money, but our schools have always been very good about funding the programs the students need."

Smith said her personal philosophy to challenges is to say each day is a new day.

"I've always kind of gone with the flow and try to do my job to the best of my ability, and that in itself usually makes a difference," she said. "If you strive to do your best, that usually wins out in the end."

Working in school systems for 22 years, Smith has witnessed many changes in her career.

"So many things have changed in education," Smith said. "It's so much different than when I first started. For example, there is so much more pressure put on teachers and staff. There are high expectations.

"When I started, the only thing I had to worry about were lesson plans and that type of thing. But now, there is so much more emphasis on test scores, teaching strategies [and other things], and teachers have to be more in tune with differentiated instructions.

Smith said it's a lot more complicated than it used to be and has evolved into so much more.

"But, it is a good thing because the stress that is put on academic success for students makes teachers more of a profession, and it stretches people to do the best they can," she said. "And, there are the same expectations for students to do their best. If everyone has high expectation for themselves, and just does their job, we can satisfy the needs of the students, and that helps the next person do their job.

"I always have high expectations for myself and my staff, so that we can do the best job that we can. And I've had great staff here. They improve each year. I couldn't ask for better teachers."

Smith feels the best advice she can give to successors, or anyone in the profession, would be to work hard and do their best.

"We've always worked hard with being 100 percent in compliance with the laws for special education, and we improve each year," she said. "That's what I hope the next person will do to keep that in place, and it has always been my goal to do that. I hope I leave the department in good standing."

After 22 years of service, Smith has a few plans in mind to fully enjoy her retirement.

"One of the things I plan to do is spend more time with family and my husband, and I have trips planned," she said.

Smith said she might entertain some part-time work or other ventures later, but right now, she just wants to relax awhile.

"Over the years, I haven't been much of a traveler, but we're going to do some traveling," she said.

Unlike teachers who typically work nine months out of the year, as an administrator, Smith worked 11-month contracts, only having one month off in July. Being one of the hottest months of the year, Smith said she did not feel like doing much.

"I'm one of those people who hasn't been out of Missouri much and would rather curl up and read a book when I have time off," she said.

One of the biggest adjustments she will have to make after retiring is not having a schedule.

"I've worked since I was 16 years old, or at some type of job since I was very young," Smith said. "So, it will be a life-changing event not to have a schedule or look at my calendar for that day. That will be the thing to get used to."

One of the things she will miss most is the staff she has worked with.

"I worked with a lot of great teachers and made friendships with faculty and staff that I'm going to miss," Smith said.

School staff said they will miss her, too.

"Wanda has done an excellent job," said Bob Walker, Southwest superintendent. "She'll definitely be missed. Organizationally, she has done a phenomenal job making sure we adhere to all the state and federal requirements. Special education can be complex at times."

Walker said when Smith took over, Southwest needed some organization.

"I think she really helped get the programs in order and kept them in order," he said. "As superintendent, I've never had worries about being out of compliance, because she does such a good job in those areas.

"She's a great person with great integrity, and has served Southwest well. I certainly congratulate her and wish her a happy retirement. She will definitely leave her mark."

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