10 Questions with LaPrice Weatherington, Transition Coordinator at John F. Kennedy School, Newark, NJ

LaPrice Weatherington is a Transition Coordinator, an author, and a mother. Her passion for helping students with IEPs transition from life in high school to life out there in the real world is inspiring to us here at ONEder. We were lucky enough to sit down with LaPrice and get her insights into why having a focused transition curriculum is so important.

Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I have an MA in Education Leadership from New Jersey City University. I became a SPED teacher 16 years ago. Before that, I was a teaching assistant at JFK, but then I went back to school and in May 2003, I returned to JFK as a special education teacher and have been here ever since.

I have a 13-year-old daughter, who’s in 8th grade and I also work with Montclair State University grad students who are thinking of becoming teachers.

How did you become interested in transition education?

I was in the classroom with students with Autism. Their parents were unaware of the transition from high school to adulthood and they didn’t know transition was a part of their kid’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Transition is more important than the social-emotional or academic parts of IEPs!

The kids were getting older and doing the same things they were doing in middle school. There wasn’t any data that was taken. No real lessons. It wasn’t part of their coursework to do transition. I asked: When they leave us, do they really have the skills, do they know what they’re doing and why? I put my thoughts in a book and started with six kids in my classroom.

This year, I have 15 seniors and they all have something they’re doing after high school. They’ve all signed up with state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services (DVRS) and transportation. The kids that are not graduating this year will be working as part of the summer youth employment program through the city of Newark. That was my vision.

Wait, you wrote a book?

Yes! I have three friends who are also teachers. We would talk about stuff and we were sure we weren’t the only ones going through this, so we decided to write a book. It was almost like a therapy session! We wrote it together to give different perspectives: an elementary teacher from West Orange, a gifted and talented teacher from Englewood, and a high school teacher from East Orange. 

#Help Me: A Parent’s Guide to Navigating the School Experience is a guide to help parents through the eyes of a teacher. The premise of the book is that your largest investment is your children. You can’t afford to have time wasted with kids with disabilities — they’ll lose it if they don’t use it. These laws are here to protect you. This is what you should expect. This is what you should be receiving. You don’t have to sign off on an IEP. You don’t have to agree to things that you don’t agree with.

How did the Transition Academy at JFK get started?

Last year, I thought that if I’m working with a kid who doesn’t have the academic skills to do certain things, I’m not going to keep beating on a dead horse. You’ll drive yourself crazy and get on his nerves if you keep trying to get him to say, write his name. We need to move forward. If it hasn’t happened by the time a kid is 18, it’s never going to happen. My principal finally agreed as we opened this year, serving kids who are 18-21.

We came up with four cohorts: financial literacy, which is really about entrepreneurship, setting up your own business; Transportation, which is about getting all seniors set up with Access Link, bus scheduling, reduced fare cards for public transportation, and helping them to know who they contact for help; and Self-care and Taking Care of Your Home, which is caring for your clothing, making a grocery list, and budgeting. That’s what they’re learning in transition.

What are some of the biggest challenges your students face as they transition to life after high school?

Not having the support they are used to once they leave school. Parents call us and kids visits us after they’ve left because we provide so much support. A lot of the work we do here falls by the wayside once they’ve graduated. The biggest challenge is making sure the work they put in continues, that’s the challenge.

What’s the best way to help parents?

Our principal has an open-door policy to provide support.

I have a good rapport with parents. I got involved with SEPAC and SPAN, and exposed my parents to those resources. I have had students who graduated a long time ago and they still call for help to get a job. I keep the lines of communication open; I make myself accessible. It’s hard. They grow up and become adults and take on a mind of their own. But once they’ve graduated, they kind of do their own thing.

What new issues are you working on?

I recently attended a resource fair and got some information on guardianship and guardianship trusts and am working with the parent engagement specialist and educating parents about guardianship alternatives and financial issues. I thought guardianship was the be all, end all, but I found out about other alternatives. Guardianship costs money and parents need to know that they don’t have to do these things. Parents need to know they have options.

What about the coffee shop your students are working at?

A teacher at JFK got a grant to open a coffee shop down the road. The kids run the whole thing. They’re doing everything, and the kids that work there can now work in any coffee shop. It’s called Dolphin’s Delight because our mascot is the dolphin. They had a soft opening on January 7th. We’ll have a grand opening soon.

What is your biggest hope for the students who attend the Transition Academy?

For the students to go on and be the best people they can possibly be. To take the skills they’ve learned here, take the relationships they’ve made, and take that out into their lives. I want them to be the best they can be and build upon the skills they have.

What future plans do you have for the Transition Academy?

To create a guide for the parents with what to expect during transition and include a bunch of resources for parents to hold on to and use if a problem arises. For example, finding summer programs in the city of Newark for children with special needs.

We also got a grant from FEBCAP training institute and the grant provides training for students and professional development. The city wants to hire a certain amount of people by the year 2025, so I want to make sure my students are part of those who are hired.

I don’t know what the next five years will bring. I enjoy what I do. I enjoy working here, I love working with the parents, and wiping the concern off parents’ faces. These kids hunt me down in the hallway. That’s the exciting part about it. Everyone needs to be on the same page and share a common goal. If students aren’t working, it won’t be because of a lack of resources, it will be a matter of choice. That’s my personal goal.

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