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West Fargo teacher 'exemplifies the best of us'

Heather Baker (left) recieves the Cass County Special Educator of the Year award from Cass County Council for Exceptional Children President Joe Leggio on Friday at the Green Mill in Fargo. Tyler Shoberg / West Fargo Pioneer

Heather Baker loves her job as a Special Education teacher in the West Fargo school district.

And she's good at it, too.

So good, in fact, that Baker recently was named the 2011 Cass County Special Educator of the Year by the Council for Exceptional Children. This is the second year the award has been offered through the Cass County CEC, which is a professional organization that focuses on improving the educational success of individuals with disabilities, as well as those with gifts and talents

"This is a little overwhelming," Baker said, during a luncheon for her behalf Oct. 25 at the Green Mill in Fargo. "It is quite an honor and a surprise."

Baker was nominated for the award by West Fargo High School special education teacher Summer Quamme, who said Bakers has "turned the program around."

"She has done such a great job, and has opened opportunities for students and parents," Quamme said.

Baker earned the distinction as Special Educator of the Year because of her dedication to students. She has been working in West Fargo for three years, and spent five years in St. Cloud, Minn., before that.

WFPS has approximate 100 special educators, which are comprised of everyone from teachers to paraprofessionals to speech language pathologists. Baker is the cream of the crop, according to her peers.

"Heather truly exemplifies the best of us," West Fargo Public Schools Special Education Director Mari Bell said.

Cass County CEC President Joe Leggio said Baker would receive a one-year membership to the organization along with the title of Special Educator of the Year. The West Fargo School Board also will recognize Baker at a future regularly scheduled school board meeting.

Baker largely works with high school students with moderate to severe disabilities from the ages of 16-21. She said her main focus is preparing them for the outside world. To accomplish this, she utilizes vocational and recreational resources, such as job coaches, and partners with outside organizations and groups who can help special needs students once they are graduated and out of her hands.

"She is caring, supporting, and really rolls up her sleeves and produces hands-on learning experiences for her students," West Fargo Special Education Program Coordinator Karen Nickel said.

Bell said one of Baker's greatest qualities is how she communicates with her students, and her ability to get others to communicate with them, too.

"Many of her students are non verbal, so they are very vulnerable individuals who are unable to clearly express their thoughts, needs and feelings," Bell said. "Heather has been able to draw out a lot of communication, and build the trust with them and their parents."

But what sets Baker apart is her almost infections enthusiasm, which helps motivate those working around her. She's a real team player, Nickel said.

Baker also supervises five paraprofessionals, of whom she said she could not do her job without.

"I've been lucky to have such great paras, support staff and administration, as well as great students and great parents," she said.