Student Profile: Ja'Nya Banks

doctoral student ja'nya banks smiling at camera

About Ja'Nya Banks

MSEd, University of Pennsylvania, Education Policy
MS, University of Maryland, Special Education
BS, University of Maryland, Special Education, Certificate in Teaching Special Education, birth-21

Ja’Nya Banks started her career as a Special Education Teacher and case manager, eventually transitioning into roles around youth mentorship, and race and identity facilitation for educators.

As a practitioner and researcher, Banks is interested in understanding communal ties amongst school based stakeholders (parents, students and teachers) during the plight of policy shifts. She looks at opportunities for shift in institutions and well as organizations, such as teachers unions, that contribute to those changes. She focuses on major events such as school closures, board turnovers and trigger reform laws and more.

See more about Ja'Nya Banks on her profile page.

Having a say and ownership in places that matter

At each major stage of doctoral student Ja’Nya Banks’ academic journey, pivotal events such as the Black Lives Matter movement, book bans, and the politicizing of classroom lessons, have served as reminders that her educational research on race, culture and policy is more important than ever.

During Banks’ undergraduate studies at the University of Maryland, the significance of the Black Lives Matter movement was illuminated with the 2017 stabbing death of a Black student, Army 1st Lt. Richard Collins III, by a white assailant who had a history of online far-right involvement.

While earning her master’s in education policy at the University of Pennsylvania, large swaths of the country became inflamed about the banning of classic books and other materials, along with headline-grabbing political attacks on teachers and curriculum. The Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection on the nation's Capitol occurred in her final semester.

And around the time she arrived at Berkeley for her doctoral studies, the issues of critical race theory as well as teaching ethnic studies in high school were charged topics on countless Boards of Education meeting agendas across the country.

“My actual research hasn’t changed with those events. I do, though, feel more embedded in my own identity as a Black woman and care more deeply about putting energy into upholding spaces of resilience for Black people, rather than hollow efforts of equity,” Banks said. “They were certainly pivotal events in my own political narrative, and my social and political standpoints do inform the way I do research.”

That research examines communal ties among school-based stakeholders such as parents, students and teachers, during policy shifts. She looks at opportunities for shifting institutions and well as organizations, such as teachers unions, that contribute to those changes.

“I want to be building asset-based narratives for marginalized communities so they can gain agency with institutions that affect them. By that, I mean people who are assigned to, yet marginalized or disenfranchised by, these larger systems — such as schools — should have decision-making power and more say and ownership in places that matter to them,” Banks said.

The country’s educational system writ large wasn’t designed to be dynamic enough to serve the diversity of students who attend school today, she noted. High-stakes testing, rules around suspension, and special education guidelines often dispossess students of color from a quality education rather than support them in their academic pursuits.

Banks became more aware of such educational inequities while in high school when she worked at childcare centers and engaged in conversations with a classmate who had cerebral palsy about challenges facing students with disabilities in traditional classrooms.

“My opinion about public schooling at the moment is that schools are only as good as the communities they serve, and we need to focus on reforming that service at a community level instead of adding to a national fear around school failure,” Banks said. “If a set of schools improve the livelihood of those in its local neighborhoods, that should take precedent in determining the value of schools as opposed to arbitrary expectations of students’ achievement – like high-stakes testing.”

In her second year at Berkeley, Banks is involved with three research projects: probing the impacts of post-Covid funding on nine California school districts from San Diego to Eureka; assessing how community policy and advocacy impacts the marginalized groups heavily affected by school closures; and a project with Stanford University examining a racial imbalance of students placed in one school district’s special education program.

She has taught an undergraduate minor in education course, Critical Studies of Education, and has advised Berkeley’s Environmental Sciences and Policy Management Department on how to address racial and cultural disproportionalities in their courses.

“My time at Berkeley has provided exposure to community-research partnerships in a meaningful way," Banks said. "I’ve been able to work alongside faculty, school leaders, educators, parents, undergraduate students and community activists all mobilizing around educational equity."

By Kathleen Maclay
Kathleen is a veteran journalist who has worked for the Contra Costa Times and The Associated Press, and was a media relations specialist in UC Berkeley's Office of Public Affairs.