Putting the Person First: An Interview with Ms. Mariela Gratero, Director of Student Services – Instruction

This past month, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mariela Gratero, Director of Students Services, Instruction for the Brilla Schools Network. Check out highlights from our conversation below! 

What is the Student Services department?

Student services is a collective of services for students who learn differently.

Ms. Gratero poses with her counterpart, Jessica Lovinsky, Director of Student Services, Compliance.

What’s your role?

Generally speaking, my role is to create the positive instructional conditions by which students with disabilities will be better able to access the general education curriculum. I feel most successful when I am able to provide them with what they need to believe in themselves and their ability. Some of our students who belong to special populations often have doubts about what they can achieve, even when they are supremely intelligent and capable. In a very ‘meta sense’, my job is to create the conditions by which they feel their capabilities.

More tactically, my job is to ensure that our Integrated Co-Teaching model is structured in a way that is inclusive and that provides both our scholars in general education and special education programs with an opportunity to learn from each other and benefit from each other’s learning profiles. It is also my job to collaborate with leaders and student services leaders to ensure that I am able to be of service when it comes to implementing their instructional vision through a more inclusive lens.

Lastly, my job also involves MTSS, which is our multi-tiered systems of supports. It is a general education structure designed to meet every student where they are. It starts with Tier One instruction, which is just good supportive instruction for all students. There is then a continuum of more intensive supports (Tier Two and Tier Three) depending on what the student needs.

We create a culture that fosters student growth and empowers our educator mindset. When working with a population that’s perceived as having the most challenges, we sometimes get lost in the stories that we tell ourselves. So, empowering our educator’s mindset is a really big part of our team’s job—empower our teacher’s skillset and, of course, promote family advocacy.

Families are the first educators, and that also means that we have a responsibility to capacitate and empower families to make informed decisions about their scholars’ educational experience. My job would not be complete if I was not always creating opportunities for families to learn about the work that we do and the needs of their scholars and the ways we can support them.

How do you empower families?

Every year, we present several family workshops. These workshops are based on various themes and in them we share information about the special populations with families. For example, we have a workshop on understanding your child’s IEP (Individualized Education Plan). Families come to learn what that is, what it looks like, and what information is in it. We ask them to bring a copy of their child’s IEP and we walk them through it. We ask families if the IEP is reflective of who their child is as a person and as a learner. Often our scholars are known through paper. You can’t capture an entire person in a document, but we try to get as close as possible. Then we reflect on whether that plan is truly supportive and reflective of the needs of their scholars. We also have workshops around evaluations, preparing for IEP meetings, and preparing for state exams. The outcome that we want is for our families to be active participants in everything we do. We want both their input and feedback to be what is guiding and driving our work for their scholars. We know that families know their children best and know what is best for them. 

Can you tell me more about how your work links to Brilla’s overall mission?

Honoring the dignity of the individual is at the core of what student services does. It starts with ensuring that the language we use is person-centered and aligned to promote student, family, and staff dignity. We shifted from using labels because a disability does not define our students. They are so much more than that. They are people first.

We ask ourselves, what does it mean for us to be or feel like we have done our job? It means that we are creating individualized experiences for our scholars. In order to do that you need to get to know who they truly are as people — their innate dignity. Our work starts with the person and we create the program around the person. We don’t create a program and then try to make it fit the person. It all starts with the person.

What motivates you to work in Student Services and at Brilla specifically?

What motivates me to do the work may sound cheesy because we say it over and over again, but I truly believe it: everyone can learn. Everyone. Everyone can learn if we provide them with the basic tools and resources to be able to do so. That is a matter of equity and justice. I think that by being in student services, I am most able to impact change for a population that I think is often forgotten or looked at as being less than or other. I have always been in student services and special education.

This work is personal to me. My nieces are students with disabilities. My sister was a student with disabilities. Her educational experience was very different from mine. She tried to leave school several times and it took her twice as long to finish a formal education as it took me. In my work, I try my best to prevent my scholars and our families from having an unjust experience when it comes to what I think is a given right.

What do you think sets Brilla apart from other schools?

At Brilla specifically, I am tied to the community and the people we serve. I look for a demographic of students that look like me and have a similar culture. Our culture and community is beautiful. There is so much to learn when you are so invested in the community and those that you serve. Brilla does a really good job of not letting us forget that.

What sets us apart is the communities that we serve. They are diverse in their own right, but also remind us that while independence has its place, there is a beauty in interdependence. In some ways, our society has pushed us to hyper-independence. I love the saying that it takes a village. In Brilla, in anything we do, we can’t get done if we try to do it alone.

Can you talk about a moment when the impact of your work really hit home for you?

I think it is really important to highlight that I never see myself as an individual within the work. The impact of my work really means the impact of our collective work. There is no way to say “I did that” in student services. It always takes a bunch of us working together for the scholar. Last year, at BCPE, we had the first scholar be rightly de-classified, meaning they graduated out of student services because they were doing so well. They were exceeding their general education peers. That scholar was able to achieve such a level of growth that we were able to say, “you are no longer a student with disabilities. You can access the general education curriculum at the same rate, or even faster and better than your other general education peers.”

Now, we’ve had more students who graduate out of student services. That is always a moment of celebration. We make it a big deal and throw graduation parties. We made sure that they knew how great of an accomplishment that it is. We make sure that they know that it is their accomplishment: they did that.

Mariela Gratero serves as the Director of Student Services, Instruction for the Brilla Schools Network. In her role, she supports the instructional work within student services. Prior to joining the Seton team, Mariela joined Brilla in 2020, serving as the Assistant Principal of Student Services of our flagship school, Brilla College Prep Elementary. Mariela graduated from Lafayette College with a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology and Philosophy. After graduating, Mariela began her teaching career through Teach for America and received her Master’s degree in Childhood Special Education from CUNY Brooklyn College. Mariela was born in the Dominican Republic and her passion for education was ignited by her experiences as a Multilingual Learner. In her free time, Mariela enjoys reading, traveling to new places, and discovering foods from around the world.

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