Our People / Published Oct 14, 2021

Meet Briana Casey: “I love working with students and families to understand their strengths.”

Our newest Navigator is coming home to Boston after three years teaching special education on the west coast.

Briana Casey recently joined our Boston team as a Navigator. A first generation college graduate, Briana specializes in special education and private school access. She’s also our resident ice hockey captain. Want to know more? Read on to learn all about our newest team member.

Welcome to EdNavigator, Briana! Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m originally from a small town about 50 minutes outside Boston. My oldest brother, who's nine years older than me, was really into ice hockey as a kid. So ice hockey became the family sport. It's what we all did. My parents say I could skate before I could walk. I think they liked it because doing a sport kept us out of trouble and gave us a community. Growing up, my parents worked really hard to make ends meet, so they were set on making sure we had all the opportunities they didn’t have.

What were your early educational experiences like?

Both my parents started college, but neither completed it. I think my mother had some undiagnosed learning disabilities that never allowed her to truly be successful in the classroom. My parents were concerned that our learning needs were not going to be met in the local public schools, but they didn’t have the means to move us elsewhere. So when my oldest brother was ready for middle school, my parents starting looking at private schools. He got into a private day school in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which ended up offering us the financial aid we needed to attend. And we were able to fully bloom there.

A big part of us getting that opportunity was due to my mom's advocacy. I saw how my mom went about asking questions, following up with people. I always felt like, come on Mom, this is embarrassing, stop reaching out, stop calling. But now those are the things I'm encouraging other parents to do. I saw my mom speaking up and asking, “Can I have this for my child?” Even if it seems like too much, it might not be too much, it might be exactly what your child needs. My mom understood that. That was really my first exposure to parent advocacy.

What was it like going back and forth from your home neighborhood to your school environment?

It was definitely a bit of a culture shock. I’m white, and a lot of my peers at school were also white. So from an outsider's perspective, it may not have appeared that there were a lot of differences. But as I got older, I started really noticing the different clothing that my peers were wearing, what their rooms looked like, the stuff they had. They had their own computers. We had a family computer that sometimes worked.

There was some bullying. Even teachers would make comments about my family's financial circumstances. I remember we had these things called “kiss-o-grams” at Valentine’s Day that you had to pay for. I think it was seventh or eighth grade, a math teacher said to me, “Oh, you're probably not getting any kiss-o-grams because you couldn't afford them, right?” That kind of thing stuck with me and made me aware, especially as an educator, of how to create a safe and inclusive environment in my classroom.

“I love reading IEPs (Individual Education Plans). I love working with students and families to understand their strengths and how to play to those strengths to help them grow.”

Tell us a little more about your time as a teacher.

After college I was accepted into a teacher training program through Boston Public Schools, and taught special education biology and physics at a high school for students with emotional impairment disorders. Then I moved out to Los Angeles, and I taught at Luskin Academy in South Central L.A. for three years as a special education teacher. In both schools, I saw a lot of students needing support with basic reading fluency. I was able to finagle my way into getting trained in Wilson Reading Systems and helped develop the reading programs at Luskin, both for special education students and also for English language learners, who either were having difficulty learning English, or who might also be having difficulty with reading fluency in their native language or languages.

I’d always worked mostly with high school seniors, but in August 2020 I started working with incoming 9th graders, who were less independent than the seniors, so I started engaging more closely with their families. Parents were asking me questions that they hadn’t asked their schools before, maybe because they didn't have a relationship with someone to ask—things like, is this how school actually works? Can school do this thing for my kid? I liked engaging in those conversations, and that eventually drew me to EdNavigator’s work.

What are you most excited about as you start working with families as a Navigator?

As I said, special education is my area of expertise. I love reading IEPs (Individual Education Plans). I love working with students and families to understand their strengths and how to play to those strengths to help them grow. Already, I’ve been talking with some of my families and their schools about having students re-assessed, so that students are able to receive support that's better tailored to their strengths and needs.

Not a lot of people can say “I love reading IEPs” and mean it.

Right? They're very daunting. They can be 25 pages long, and they are not written in parent-friendly language. These are legal documents. I love being able to summarize what’s in them for parents, clarify what they need to know, what kinds of things they can do to support their child, and what their child is doing really well.

Any fun facts about yourself that you’d like to share?

Here’s an interesting tidbit: I don't have a sense of smell. I only have four senses. There’s a little bit of debate about whether I was born like this or not. When I was five months old, I got chicken pox. They gave me antibiotics that I ended up being allergic to, and I got very, very sick. My doctors aren't sure if that's when I lost my sense of smell, or if it was something I was born with. Either way, I don’t notice because I’m just used to it. I have friends who have had COVID and lost their sense of smell and they’re like, “This is what you live with?” But I don't know any other way, so it's okay.