As a young child, Ellery Hoffman — now a Berkeley High School (BHS) junior in Academic Choice (AC) — struggled with academics throughout elementary school. “I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I knew the material, but I wasn’t getting the results that I wanted,” said Hoffman, who now has a 504 specialized learning plan.
Learning challenges like these have only been made worse by distance learning. Virtual school has continued to widen equity gaps and exacerbate previous issues within Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD), and it has not been easy by any means for most students.
According to BHS Counselor Maribel Quiroz, “A Section 504 Plan is designed for students with a mental or physical impairment that greatly impacts a student’s learning in comparison to [other] students their own age.” As a major coordinator of 504 plans, Quiroz is an active part of the process and works to ensure that students are provided with adequate 504 accommodations. Quiroz added, “I also support the families and teachers with any clarifying questions or concerns that may arise during the process.”
The most common accommodations provided by 504 plans include extra time on school work and exams (including standardized tests like the SAT and ACT), and in some cases, shortened assignments.
Each 504 plan is designed specifically for one individual, so these plans are personalized for students. Because they are so student-specific, every person who has a 504 plan discusses their accommodations with a counselor at the beginning and end of each school year. This case-by-case process has continued to prevail throughout the course of distance learning, despite the hurdles of a virtual environment. BHS counselors and administrators are still working to issue new plans to students, and revise previously-designed plans. “Counselors are still holding 504 meetings during distance learning,” said Quiroz.
Universal Ninth Grade (U9) Hive 7 leader and Physics teacher Vicki Augustine addressed a controversial aspect of 504 plan — the argument that families can leverage them to give their child an advantage in class and on standardized tests. She says these plans should be fair, and should be used by students to inform their teachers of accommodations they need. “A 504 plan is not to help one student be advantaged over another,” she clarified.
Hoffman has had a 504 plan ever since the sixth grade, when it was implemented after numerous psychological and mental tests he had taken the previous summer. Hoffman said that after months of extensive testing, a specialist concluded that he had a learning disability.
Once he was diagnosed with having a learning disability, the 504 plan went underway. As a fifth grader, he thought that having a learning disability meant you are not smart, but he later realized that this is simply not true — some people just learn differently. Because of this, for the majority of middle school, he didn’t use his plan’s accommodations very much. “My mindset going into that was, ‘I don’t want to use it unless I absolutely have to,’ ” he said.
Hoffman’s parents, however, being major advocates for him and his learning, encouraged him to use the accommodations provided by the plan. He eventually started taking advantage of the plan during eighth grade, and has been happy to have it ever since.
Hoffman’s 504 plan includes more time on tests and shortened assignments, along with preferential seating in classrooms and being granted access to teachers’ notes from classwork or homework.
While most teachers are familiar with 504 plans, students who have them often need to advocate for themselves in class. In most of his classes, Hoffman has to reach out to his teachers about the plan, not the other way around.
While teachers are legally obligated to follow the needs of students with 504 plans, Hoffman has found that they are much more willing to comply easily when he poses his accommodations nicely. “I have to say, ‘These are my accommodations. Can we figure out a way for you to give them to me in a way that feels comfortable for you?’ ” said Hoffman.
Especially during distance learning, having less direct engagement with counselors, students with 504 plans must advocate even more for their needs — a skill Hoffman believes is a “big part of having any kind of plan; 504 or IEP [Individualized Education Program].”
Though Hoffman recognizes the significant help the 504 plan provides him, he believes that there is still work to be done to make learning more equitable for all. Hoffman stated, “I’ve always struggled with school. School has never really worked out for me. So, 504 has been very helpful, and yet, still the school system … prevails in making it not as good for me as [it does for] someone who learns a different way.”
Overall, Hoffman said that he has been very happy to have the plan. It has made him more confident about school, enabling him to feel up to the challenges of learning both in the classroom and at home. He explained, “Although school was hard for me, I was like, ‘I can do this.’ ”