Inclusion is special ed teacher’s mission

Leanne Banks, who teaches the junior high neurobiological disorders program in School District 191, is this year’s winner of the Inclusive Educational Practices award given by the district’s Special Education Advisory Council. Photo by John Gessner

Leanne Banks wins award in District 191

Growing up in Herman, Minn., Leanne Banks was reminded by her parents to be helpful and tolerant with the special-needs children in their small town.

“They set the right example for me,” said Banks, now a special education teacher in Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District 191. “I just sort of ran with it.”

Banks is this year’s winner of the Inclusive Education Practices Award, begun last school year by the district’s Special Education Advisory Council. The first winner was Mark Riggs, a teacher, coach and student council adviser at Burnsville High School.

Banks was nominated for the award by the mother of  one of her seven students in the district’s junior high neurobiological disorders program, which is based at Eagle Ridge Junior High. The program is for students with diagnosed syndromes such as Asperger’s, who receive special education services under categories including autism spectrum disorders.

“It means so much when it comes from a parent, because you work with them as a team concerning their student,” Banks said.

Banks is “one of a kind” in helping students reach their potential, the parent wrote in nominating her.

Banks, who started teaching in 1972, has been intrigued by autism-spectrum disorders since her college days, when little was known about them.

“I like challenges,” she said. “It was a mystery. It’s been fun to really follow the research and get the worldwide perspective on it.”

Her first teaching assignment was in New Prague, with junior high students with developmental and cognitive delays. An emphasis of her work was enabling students to join mainstream classes and the everyday fabric of school life.

“I guess everything that I’ve done has been around inclusion with kids, getting them into the mainstream,” Banks said.

She soon left teaching to raise a family and didn’t rejoin the profession until 1994, when she was hired by District 191. It was the second year of the district’s junior high neurobiological disorders program.

“In the late ’60s, early ’70s, there was very little information out there about autism, and much of it was inaccurate,” Banks said. “So the ’90s was a good time to start back in.”

Banks’ seven students this year — six eighth-graders and a ninth-grader — are bussed from across the district to Eagle Ridge.

They spend from two to four periods of the six-period day in her program. Banks teaches classes in social skills and study skills, as well as language arts and math.

Her room — 1007 at Eagle Ridge — includes a partitioned privacy room and posters on the walls meant to help students recognize and self-regulate their reactions and behaviors in social situations.

“Because social understanding is not easy for them,” Banks said, “we teach many of the social interactions. … They perceive the world differently than what most of us do. That’s the way they’re made with their disorder.”

But most of the students she works with are of average or above-average academic ability, she said.

“The students in this program are bright kids” who are academically competitive with mainstream peers, she said.

Banks has been known to urge her students interested in school clubs to buddy up with another student from the program for fortification.

“Our students with disabilities have a lot of talents, they have a lot to offer,” Banks said. “And they want to find their niche in life. They want to fit in and they want to have friends. They want to help other people.”