During his sophomore year at Berkeley High School, Luke Prud’homme reached out to his teachers about an incredibly difficult situation. “My mother was dying during the pandemic, and I was one of the people taking care of her,” Prud’homme said, “I wanted to spend time with her before she died, so I emailed all my teachers and got an agreement from them that we would use my 504 in a way that I could spend time with my mother, and I could take care of her.”
However, “One of my teachers… would not accept that I had a 504, (and) would not let me use any of my accommodations,” Prud’homme said. Although his teacher initially agreed to the plan, they didn’t follow it or respond to any of Prud’hommes requests.
Without support, students with 504s and IEPs (Individualized Learning Plans) can struggle in school. “It definitely made things more difficult,” Prud’homme said. “It made me more anxious, which is the reason why I have a 504 in the first place.”
IEPs and 504s are two kinds of accommodations that students can get in order to receive the support they need in school. Accommodations can range from having more time to work on assignments to taking breaks from class, with each accommodation geared towards the individual student.
In order to qualify for an IEP or 504, students go through an official diagnosis and evaluation process to see how their learning differences affect their education, which can take months or even years. Itta Behrman, a junior with a 504 for dyslexia and ADHD, had difficulty getting her 504 transferred to BHS after her time in private school. During the process, Behrman said she was “pulled aside and (told), Hey, your grades are pretty good …you don’t seem to be struggling, so I don’t think you need a 504.” Though she was eventually able to attain her 504, the experience frustrated her because “grades … aren’t (the only) reflective factor of how people’s lives are going,” Behrman said.
Teachers and staff are required by law to follow 504 and IEP plans, but that doesn’t always guarantee that they will. Maccrae Murphy DeYoung, who has an IEP for dyslexia, had a teacher who “wasn’t commutative about IEPs and (made it) really stressful to use any accommodations, and a lot of (other) students felt the same way,” he said.
However, “Almost all teachers are really accepting about (my IEP), I’ve only ever had one teacher who was weird about it,” Murphy DeYoung said.
To Owen Latham, an IEP case manager at BHS, working alongside teachers to develop supportive curriculum is essential to delivering accommodations. Unfortunately, it’s easier said than done.
“We’re encouraged to (connect with each other), but a lot of times we aren’t provided with the time or the bandwidth to actually get together and decide (on how to) create a curriculum that allows the grade level material to be accessible for learners at different levels,” Latham said.
In order to increase accessibility to 504s and IEPs, better awareness and funding is needed across the board. Access to testing and information on accommodations can help more students succeed.
“Most schools won’t test (for learning differences) because it costs money,” Murphy DeYoung said. “Berkeley’s IEP system is … an amazing program,” but in order for students to be better supported by IEPs and 504s, there needs to be “more testing at the younger levels,” Murphy DeYoung said.
“There’s so many people who would benefit from having a 504 or IEP, (but) the process, the time, (and) the money blocks it from people,” Behrman said.
Issues within the IEP and 504 programs trace back to a lack of funds devoted to special education.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law geared to support free special education in the United States, promises federal funding in addition to state and local funds. However, since 2004, the federal government has not come close to paying the promised amount, leading “states to completely fund special education …because they haven’t been able to get that assisted funding from the federal government,” Latham said, “We’re forced to do more with less every single year.”
Latham and the administration have discussed the possibility of receiving sub pay in order to collaborate when the school day is over, but a tight school and state budget makes things difficult.
“I’m a big fan of collaboration, and I understand completely the need for paid collaboration time … (but) until we have that payed time, finding time with colleagues is pretty difficult,” Latham said.
“The whole point of (504s and IEPs) is to make things more effective,” Prud’homme said. In order for students to succeed in education, access to accommodations must be effective too.