Lenape Regional High School District Teacher of the Year receives Princeton University award

Lenape High School special education teacher Christene Willitts was awarded by Princeton University’s Program in Teacher Preparation.

Christene Willitts, a special education teacher at Lenape High School, is one of four secondary school teachers awarded this year by Princeton University’s Program in Teacher Preparation. According to district officials, this annual selection recognizes the accomplishments of public and private school teachers throughout the state.

Willitts will receive $5,000, as well as $3,000 for Lenape High School’s library, and she will be honored at Princeton University’s 2018 Commencement on Tuesday, June 5.

Willitts, the 2017–18 Lenape Regional High School District Teacher of the Year, joined the district in 2004. She helped develop and implement the Lenape High School’s Autism Program, which officials say has since become a model for other school districts.

Officials say her classroom design, operational strategies and methods of teaching help ensure that students with autism transition smoothly throughout their educational journeys, achieve success and feel happiness in their lives.

“The environment in her classes goes beyond hugs and high fives to designing lessons so specific and differentiated that all students can succeed,” said Lenape High School Principal Tony Cattani in his recommendation of 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.

Willitts called working with persons with autism her “true calling and ultimate passion” in a personal statement submitted as part of a nomination package for this award.

Once selected as a finalist, Willitts hosted a staff member from Princeton’s Program in Teacher Preparation at Lenape for a closer look at the Autism Program, her teaching accomplishments and practices. She was then selected by committee as one of four winners.

“Although each has a unique instructional style, the four teachers honored with this award share the common bond of a total commitment to their students,” said Todd Kent, director of Princeton’s Program in Teacher Preparation, in a news release administered by Princeton University. “These teachers transform and enrich lives, and they remind us of the very important role that teachers play in our culture. They are an inspiration to both practicing and aspiring teachers, and the remarkable accomplishments of their students are the true measure of their skill

in the classroom.”

Princeton has honored secondary school teachers since 1959 after receiving an anonymous gift from an alumnus to establish the program. Willitts is the third teacher from LRHSD to receive this award.

“So many students and their families have put their trust in Christene, and she has worked day in and day out to deliver for them,” Lenape Regional High School Superintendent Carol Birnbohm said. “She is truly deserving of this prestigious recognition for her efforts to not only develop Lenape’s Autism Program, but for the daily modifications she makes to ensure the program fits the individual needs and learning goals of her students.”

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, who both attend Seneca High School.