Emma, a junior at M-A, knew that she needed accommodations in school as early as middle school. Her anxiety and depression made schoolwork especially difficult, so she got what is called a 504 in her freshman year of high school. She was later diagnosed with a slow processing speed, which means it takes a longer time for her to take in information and make sense of it. Having a 504 allows Emma to take the challenging classes she wants to take. For example, this year she is taking AS English III and AP US History. Her 504 gives her the extra time she needs on timed essays, and she is able to manage stress better with her accommodations.
The 504 plan and IEP (Individualized Education Program) are academic plans that give special needs students the support they need to access education just as their peers do. Special needs might be a hearing impairment, a learning disorder — such as ADHD, dyslexia, or a processing disorder— or anything else that somehow makes learning difficult for a student. An IEP is similar to a 504, but has more stringent guidelines. A student must fall under one of the 13 categories of learning disabilities after a psychological evaluation to qualify for an IEP.
Accommodations can give students extra time, deadline extensions, shortened homework, and quieter test-taking settings. An M-A student with a 504, who wished to remain anonymous, said that she always feels like her teachers care about helping her succeed, by giving her extra time, or simply framing concepts in a way she can understand.
On standardized tests, especially the SAT and ACT, students who have 504s or IEPs can have a longer time for each section and take the test in a separate room. Cooper, a junior whose 504 has expired, said, “I wish I could have the extra time on the SAT or ACT. It’s a huge game changer because time is a constraint on those standardized tests, which matter a lot for colleges.”
So what’s it like having an IEP or 504 at M-A?
Here at M-A, 136 students have 504s and 259 have IEPs. That means about 16 percent of our student body receive educational accommodations. Usually, a guidance counselor, teacher, or parent notices a student having a difficult time managing schoolwork; then, the Student Risk Assessment Team (SRAT) takes a look at these challenges. After getting a diagnosis, a student likely starts out with a 504, and if the 504 is not effective, he or she will get an IEP. A student with an IEP has a case manager, who advocates on behalf of the student and makes sure he or she is getting the appropriate accommodations.
Emma thinks there are several things M-A does right with IEPs and 504s, with its support system of counselors and teachers, but she does admit there are things M-A could change. For example, her mom goes through a great length of back-and-forth email correspondence to set up meetings at the beginning of each school year with Emma’s teachers and guidance counselor. These meetings are meant to get them all on the same page in terms of Emma’s extra time and needs. But what about the students who don’t have the time or resources to conduct these meetings?
Emma also pointed out that while she has been lucky to have mostly helpful teachers, she knows many people whose teachers disregard or ignore their need for accommodations. “[The administration] should somehow make sure that teachers are following the rules when it comes to those 504s and IEPs,” Emma suggested.
According to Dr. Brenda Bachechi, the administrative vice principal who oversees the Special Needs Department, there are workshops during Professional Development aimed to train teachers on IEPs and 504s. In these workshops, teachers learn how to make changes in their teaching to help students with special needs succeed.
There is a stigma attached to special needs among students. Students often label peers with IEPs and 504s as dumb, or think that they are lucky to get special treatment.
A student in one of Emma’s classes said to her, “Oh you have a 504? How are you in AP classes?”
Some students are embarrassed about their special needs, and try to hide it from their class, fearful of being perceived as mentally incapable. “In freshman year, I would take an essay and continue writing as the other students were forced to stop, and I would get embarrassed,” Cooper admitted.
“There’s a weird stigma around it. When I get extra time on essays, people are like, ‘Wow you’re so lucky! I want extra time’,” Emma said.
She replies to those comments, “I’m not getting something that you’re not. I’m getting the accommodations to compensate for what I don’t have in my brain.”
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When my son was an Gunn in Palo Alto, some of his teachers refused his accommodations and it was a huge problem for our entire family. He had to learn to advocate for himself, but his father and I had to get involved at the district level to enforce the IEP. I hope M-A does a better job than Gunn did for my son.