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Dubuque educator's legacy: It takes class to liven up a classroom

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    April Hattori

Deb Otto not only taught teachers, but she also breathed life back into their classrooms.

Many teachers in numerous states were impacted by Otto's passionate mission to ensure schools had the tools needed to positively reach students.

"Its been an incredible opportunity," said Otto, a Dubuque resident.

That opportunity recently came to an end when Otto retired as Midwest regional director for Expeditionary Learning, a position she had held for 12 years. The educational reform agency, headquartered in New York, provides school leaders and teachers with professional development, curriculum planning resources and new school structures meant to boost student engagement, character and achievement.

She wasn't alone in retirement. More than a year ago, Otto and her Dubuque co-workers, Mary Pat Ament and Wendy Wolf, decided to retire together May 31.

"It was really nice to know that we were all going to go," said Wolf, a retired program manager.

The three women said they were ready to spend some more time with family and friends.

Retirement will be a bit of an adjustment for Otto, a woman who spent 40 years in the teaching profession.

Otto was a teacher at Fulton Elementary School for 13 years before she spent another 13 years as principal at Hoover, then Fulton and finally Lincoln elementary schools. While at Lincoln, which was an expeditionary learning school at the time, she was recruited by Expeditionary Learning.

"I'm a little bit of an excitement-seeker," Otto said about the opportunity.

For two years, Otto was a school designer who designed curriculum and strategies with teachers and school leaders. She then was promoted to Midwest regional director and worked with about 40 schools in 12 Midwest states and oversaw six school designers.

Wolf said Otto was a great leader who always had the best in mind for her others.

"The office was a lovely mixture of being highly professional and joyful," said Ament, a retired school designer. "I got really lucky in having her as a boss."

In fact, Ament had Otto as a boss twice -- once as a teacher at Fulton and then at Expeditionary Learning.

There were many times when Otto wasn't in the office. She joked she spent so much time traveling for Expeditionary Learning that she was well-known at Dubuque Regional Airport.

"The hard parts are missing the things happening at home," Otto said. "Yet, I wouldn't trade any of it."

Since the women retired together, the Midwest Expeditionary Learning office was moved from Dubuque to Milwaukee, Wis.

Otto said she isn't sure what her retirement will bring. She may serve on the Rwamagana Lutheran School's board, a school in the eastern province of Rwanda, where Otto helped create an expeditionary learning curriculum, and she also might start to paint.

"I'm trying to find out what my next 13 or 14 years brings," Otto said.

By Stacey Becker, Telegraph Herald Staff Writer

June 10, 2013