The Lenape High School Autism Program has become a model for other school districts looking to replicate Willitts’ classroom design, operational strategies and methods of teaching to ensure that students with autism transition smoothly throughout their educational journeys, achieve success and feel happiness in their lives. Over the past 12 years of operating the program, Willitts has taught and supported students and their families, with some students remaining in the program through age 21.
“When I started the program, I earned the trust of nervous parents who wanted nothing but the best for their children, and I coached the staff how to best meet the students’ needs,” said Willitts.
Within the Autism Program, Willitts has developed a pre-vocational skills class, which allows students to practice pre-vocational skills that can be generalized to other community settings when they enter the Transition Service Program or the workforce upon graduation. The jobs she has developed place her students throughout the high school building, in the media center, offices, classrooms, cafeterias and hallways. Her students assist with a range of activities from delivering mail to posting announcements. They also perform clerical tasks to support major school fundraisers and events like the Senior Pinning Ceremony and the District Job Fair.
“My students are impacting and contributing to the overall school community,” said Willitts. “Incidentally, their work throughout the school has elicited a school-wide awareness of autism and the cultivation of relationships between my students and the Lenape staff and general student population that otherwise may not have happened. The school community has learned to better understand and embrace autism, and my students are respected as integral members of the Lenape family.”
“Ms. Willitts takes great pride in her stewardship of the Autism Program and has poured her heart and soul into being a model educator,” said Lenape High School Principal Tony Cattani. “She strives to get the most from her students so they can realize their potential in tangible ways by guiding them through countless successful endeavors. These endeavors will have life-long, lasting impacts.”
While Willitts has created the framework for a successful Autism Program, it is her ability to connect with students and families that make her a truly exceptional member of the LRHSD community.
“Each student must know that she or he is valued, even in moments of discourse or failure,” Willitts said. “Each family must know that a teacher values their child and is willing to be a team player, working to connect the home and school environments.”
Willitts earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Trenton State College and has a master’s in special education from The College of New Jersey. She resides in Southampton Township with her husband, Chris, and has two children, Madison and Josh.