BHS students, staff grapple with learning accommodations

“A 504 plan is an accommodation plan that I can use to help me succeed and reach my best potential in school,” Kai Fang-Stillman, a Berkeley High School student with a 504 plan, said.


“A 504 plan is an accommodation plan that I can use to help me succeed and reach my best potential in school,” Kai Fang-Stillman, a Berkeley High School student with a 504 plan, said. According to Vanessa Sinai, the 504 Program Supervisor at BHS, 504 plans and Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) are legal documents that protect the rights of students with disabilities.

“It’s a plan that prevents discrimination against a student because of their disability … It’s covered under the section 504 rehabilitation act, so it’s a civil rights law,” Sinai said. According to Sinai, some examples of accommodations include being able to leave class early, being able to wear headphones to cancel out overstimulating noise, getting extra time on assignments or tests, and more. 

Sinai explained that in order to get these plans and their accommodations, students need to go through a process that can span months. “It’s like a 60-90 day timeline, basically,” Sinai said. 

One of the first steps to get a 504 plan or an IEP is to schedule a Student Success Team meeting (SST). “It’s a meeting with your school counselor, your parents, and maybe some of your teachers to problem solve and troubleshoot what’s going on,” explained Nina Garrovillo, a BHS school psychologist. After an SST, the student is offered different resources and support before they’re given a 504 plan or an IEP.

According to Sinai and Garrovillo, if the student isn’t showing signs of improvement after being offered those resources, more steps are taken to help the student get a 504 plan or an IEP. 

A BHS student with an IEP, who wished to remain anonymous because they didn’t want to disclose their diagnosis publicly, explained what their personal process of requesting an IEP looked like and the timeline, “653 days. But who’s counting?” The anonymous student said. The student continued explaining their worries about the accessibility of 504 and IEP accommodations. “I know a lot of people who have gone through the same thing,” they explained.

In Fang-Stillman’s case, she had to apply for a 504 plan at BHS after transferring from another school. “When I first put in my request for a 504, I was denied by the school,” Fang-Stillman said. “I also attended the meetings to talk about my 504, and why I needed it, and I felt like I wasn’t being listened to as I was stating my needs and how it affected me as the student … I remember feeling really hopeless. I hadn’t not had a 504 or accommodation plan since I was eight.” After two months, Fang-Stillman was granted a 504 plan.

Wren Chambers, a BHS student with 504 accommodations explained how she experienced the process her freshman year. 

“From what I remember from freshman year, it didn’t take too long to get the 504 plan,” Chambers wrote in an email to the Jacket. However, Chambers emphasized that she had pre existing knowledge of the process because her older sibling had accommodation plans at BHS. “I think it only took a couple meetings for it to get set up … The longest part of it was waiting for things to get signed and more technical stuff … I didn’t really experience any significant challenges in the process, but I want to emphasize this was my personal experience,” Chambers wrote.

Garrovillo explained that many factors are taken into account when evaluating the eligibility of a student, saying, “We will do a full assessment on students’ processing. So looking at their learning profile, how’s their memory? What about attention, or visual or auditory processing? All of those things are taken into consideration.” 

Sinai explained that medical diagnoses aren’t required to get either plan, as a student can be simply ‘regarded’ as having a disability and still receive accommodations. 

“The ‘regarded as’ is super important, because it’s an equity issue. If a student doesn’t have the resources to go get a whole neuropsychological evaluation, or to go to the doctor to get an official diagnosis, they could (still) be regarded as having an impairment,” Sinai explained. 

Having the resources to obtain a medical diagnosis is not the only equity issue that arises in the accommodation plans process, according to Sinai. 

“The data shows that students who have more resources, have 504 plans, and have gotten them more than students who don’t have more resources,” Sinai said. “So that’s what I’m trying to change about the program. I’m trying to make it equity centered.”

 There are over 305 504 accommodation plans at BHS, according to Sinai.

Garrovillo explained another way in which resources, previously allocated for students who need them, can be misused. 

“I deal a lot more with parents who are looking for more support for their students, and sometimes think that special education is like tutoring. But it’s not,” Garrovillo explained. “It’s not to help students get A’s, but rather for students to be able to learn.”

The implications of diverging resources can also harm students who might not know they need accommodations, according to Garrovillo.

 “If we as a school are spending time assessing students who don’t need the services, that means we’re missing finding the kids that do need it,” Garrovillo said. 

Three years ago BHS created the position of 504 program supervisor and hired Sinai, in an attempt to address this issue. 

“In the past, 504 plans were solely managed by the counselors, but it became too much work for them on their caseload, so now I can sort of manage the program of 504s,” Sinai said. 

Sinai continued,  “We’re serving a huge community at Berkeley High (School), and we need to make sure that students who really need that total access are really getting it,” Sinai said. 

In spite of these recent adjustments to improve the accommodation plan process, Garrovillo explained that there continues to be a lack of special education workers, which can be a contributing factor to these problems of accessibility.

“If (case managers are) over their caseload, or if they have more students than would be typical, they’re going to have a harder time making sure they’re addressing all of their students’ needs,” Garrovillo said. Each case manager may have caseloads of up to 20 students, depending on the demand, Garrovillo explained. “Not having enough case managers can impact how quickly and efficiently we’re supporting students,” she said.

The anonymous student described their initial attempt at getting an IEP plan through BHS. “(Someone in the special education department) gave a report of her findings to my parents and an IEP team, and decided that I’m not eligible for an IEP,” they said.

The anonymous student continued, “I got a medical diagnosis (of autism) in April 2022. Then in June, (the school said) … I (still) do not qualify for an IEP.” The student explained that their high grades did not reflect their difficulties within the school environment, something they believed was misinterpreted by the school when determining their qualification for an IEP.  

“I missed about 800 (class periods) before I got my IEP … in that span of 653 days where they didn’t give me an IEP, from application to actually getting it,” the anonymous student said. “I was very disturbed emotionally, … and I didn’t have the resources to navigate it.”

The student explained that without the IEP they didn’t have access to resources such as speech therapy and occupational therapy through the school, tools which they had been hoping to benefit from. However, through external evaluations, the student was eventually able to qualify for an IEP.

The anonymous student reflected on how they believe the system could improve.

“It just needs to be more timely; it needs to be more accessible,” The student said. “I mean the people there are nice. It’s not really their fault … A lot of it is systemic.”

When describing issues contributing to the current process of acquiring an accommodation plan, Garrovillo explained the strain BHS has had on hiring special education workers. 

 “I think that there is a little bit of a shortage right now of case managers or special education teachers, for various reasons,” Garrovillo said.  “And that’s not an issue that’s just even at Berkeley High School. I think that there’s a shortage throughout the state and nation as well.”