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Marianne Nelson has been helping special needs students at Waconia Public Schools for 21 years.

“I know, that sounds like a long time,” Nelson, a special education assistant, said. “But I love it. It’s absolutely perfect for me. I love the students and the staff, and you never get tired of it. You get to help them in so many ways. You help them academically, socially, and emotionally, and you are really working to make them independent. That’s the ultimate goal.”

Nelson works mostly one-on-one with students and helps several students throughout the day. She works with them in their own classroom on core subjects and then follows them when they go to other classes such as art, phy ed, industrial arts, and music.    

“We simply couldn’t do this without them,” Lori Utermarck, Waconia Middle School special education teacher, added.

Utermarck creates the Individualized Education Program, or IEP, for each of her students and then people like Nelson assist in carrying out that plan.

“Each student is different and has unique needs, so that’s why you work in small numbers because we are addressing those needs of each individual student. It’s all about helping them move on and succeed in life,” Utermarck said.

“The special education assistants are always giving students that added support,” Erika Leen, Waconia Middle School special education teacher, said. “They are really on the front lines and we are in constant communication with them. They help all of us dig deeper as they are the eyes and ears, watching the students and reacting to their needs to help them be as successful as they can be.”

For special education assistants such as Jamie Mackenthun, it’s about the small triumphs that happen on a daily basis.

“When you see something that you’ve taught them being applied, it’s the best. It’s just really cool to see,” Mackenthun stated. “I’m always looking for that silver lining. Even if they are struggling with something, I keep encouraging them to work through it and see what they can learn from it. Because I know the next day, they are going to find success.”

One of Nelson’s coworkers recently nominated her to be named Minnesota’s educational support professional of the year. When Nelson was notified that she was one of four finalists, she pulled her name from the running.

“Isn’t that crazy,” Nelson laughed. “I don’t need anything like that. My reward is my work and the results that I see with the kids.”

Nelson then continued to explain the real reward that she’s after.

“I was out in the community the other day and a former student came up to me and asked me how I’m doing. It was the greatest feeling ever, to see this student outside of school, being so independent and confident. That’s what makes my day. That’s the only kind of recognition that I need.”