When we first meet with students and families, we go over academic progress, look at transcripts, and talk subjectively about how the student feels about school. We often hear of difficulty in a particular class. Or we hear that a student hasn’t had enough time to finish a test. Or that turning in homework is an issue. And this sparks the question, which we ask gently, “Have you received accommodations for any of these issues?” We reassure students and families that, for us, there is no judgment. We simply want to make sure the student is getting whatever help he needs. All too often a student tells us that, yes, she has a 504. Or a parent jumps in to tell us about an IEP. And then comes the kicker. We ask if the student is using the accommodations, and he frequently tells us “no.”
This is the sad truth about the 504/IEP process. Kids are tested academically and psychologically. They visit doctors who provide diagnoses. Teachers, administrators and school psychologists as well as parents and educational advocates gather together to approve a plan (IEP or 504) that will address a child’s needs. And then… nothing.
Of course this is not always the case. But for high school kids who are in the most highly charged emotional phase of their lives, having to ask for something that sets them apart feels like a request to be ostracized.
And it’s not just the kid’s reticence. In high school – where students spend a limited amount of time with each teacher and class sizes continue to grow -- the accommodations can slip through the cracks. Sometimes teachers have no idea that an IEP or 504 is in place. One parent described a high school back to school night in which she visited with each of her child’s teachers. She brought up her child’s IEP to each and found that none of them were aware of it. This was a case where the student had emotional rather than learning issues. But her needs were just as crucial.
A less understandable problem is that some teachers manage to make the process difficult for students. They may embarrass the kid, or be inconsistent about things like extra time or a quiet setting for a test. Even if this is not true, kids perceive that it is--so it may as well be true.
We certainly don’t want to generalize, but the issue comes up too often for us to ignore. What’s important here is to figure out how to put accommodations in place once they’re approved. In the standardized testing world, very specific actions are taken regarding extra time and test locations. (More about the scandal in a moment.) But in classrooms, on a day to day basis, the lines are blurred.