Native American education focus of professor’s efforts

She’s a professor, educator, mother of three and winner of this year’s Distinguished Service Award for faculty. Susan Banks, assistant professor in Teaching and Learning, is also co-director of the WSU and Northwest Indian College Teacher Training Program, which is working off a $950,000 Kellogg grant.

“This program was important because it allowed NWIC students who had a job or family stay in their community and still receive the type of degree in education they wanted,” said Banks. “We used different aspects of WSU curriculum to structure classes, and we’ve learned a lot from this experience.”

Eastern Washington origins
A member of the Arapahoe Nation, with Irish and German also in her lineage, she was raised in what she calls the “poor” part of Spokane. Her love for education began in her early years at school.

As a volunteer at Eastern Hospital in Medical Lake, Wash., she gained interest in special education. This led Banks to earn her bachelor’s degree in education, with certifications in special and general education, from Eastern Washington University in 1982.

Ten years later, she completed her master’s degree in special education and early childhood special education at Gonzaga University. At Penn State, Banks earned a Ph.D. in special education, with emphasis on assessment and educational psychology.

Homesickness brought her back to Eastern Washington. The College of Education, Department of Teaching and Learning at WSU gave her a summer appointment in May of 1997, and in August of the same year, she took a position as an assistant professor in special education.

A teacher of teachers

Since then, several responsibilities have been added to her plate.

Twenty-three teachers (22 of whom are Native Americans, most representing local tribes) have graduated from the program, and three have yet to finish. According to the Washington Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, only 300 Native American teachers have been certified in the entire state of Washington in the last 12 years.

The program also helps to monitor and document challenges that Native American students have in the public schools.

“Keeping in touch with those students who were part of the program as they have taken positions in public schools has allowed us to stay abreast of the challenges faced by Native American teachers.”

Families together
Banks’ life experiences have led to her advocacy.

“Everywhere I go, I hear stories about how children and families have been treated, and it’s time that Native Americans understand their rights,” says Banks.

As the mother of a child with a disability, the lack of assistance for such families hit right at home for her. She is the co-director of the Native American Families Together Parent Center in the area. NAFT centers serve the entire family with education, support, access to resources and fun opportunities to learn. NAFT seeks to increase partnerships between Native American families who have a child with a disability and the professionals serving their children, and provide parents with information through a community network.

“The power is in the family. Working with the entire family is key,” affirms Banks.

She and others sense the need to promote the importance of “requesting services and getting more parents involved in special education efforts” to Native American families. The center has developed a variety of programs to further their mission, which include: The Family Enrichment Weekend, Families Together Outreach Library, and family support groups.

WSU and Native America
Banks served as the co-director of the Native American Women’s Association. Native Americans number 267 on the Pullman campus, with six in Spokane, five in the Tri-Cities, and 13 in Vancouver. Banks recognizes the university’s support for different outreach projects, but adds, “We need to move in a more positive direction. WSU knows how to recruit students of color, but the environment and retention are areas where more action is needed. We need to look more at why people come and why they leave.”

Banks suggests that there be more discussions with the Native American communities and their elders regarding: education needs, how Native American communities can be served more efficiently, graduating more students, and getting more Native American faculty.

When asked what motivates her, Banks refers to one of her grandfather’s sayings: “It’s about caring for others. What more is there to say?”