504 plans play a silent role in boosting student equity

Plan accommodations also help prevent students’ anxiety

Each year, the month of August is synonymous with the dread of starting school; this August, however, the return to school stirred even greater distress than usual as students had to readapt to learning in a real classroom setting, five days a week, after months of schooling from the comfort of home.

As students in the Acalanes Union High School District re-enter full in-person learning, many students with disabilities use the accommodations in their 504 Plans to allow for a smooth transition.

The 1973 Rehabilitation Act, the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act protect children and adults with disabilities from unequal treatment in schools, jobs, and public areas.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act states that “no otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States … shall, solely by reason of her or his disability, be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” 

Before Section 504 passed, the responsibility for attaining an equal education rested solely on the people with disabilities. The Rehabilitation Act required programs receiving federal funds to prevent discrimination against people with disabilities, so public school systems implemented 504 Plans as well. 

504 Plans help students with disabilities individualize their support with accommodations such as sitting in a certain area of the classroom, requiring teachers to wear a microphone, or receiving extra time on tests.

“A 504 Plan is an individualized plan for someone that has a disability to make sure that they have accommodations so that they can access what we have at the school and the curriculum,” Acalanes guidance counselor Anne Schonauer said. 

504 Plans provide students with disabilities an equal opportunity to perform in their classes without facing more challenges that their disabilities may pose.

“The purpose of it is about leveling the playing field. Some kids need a little bit of extra support… so that they have equal access to the curriculum as their peers,” Acalanes Associate Principal Mike Plant said.

Students who apply for 504 Plans must meet a two-part standard: having a qualifying condition and making a sustained educational impact. According to the U.S. Department of Education, Section 504 defines a disability as “a physical or mental impairment” that substantially impacts one or more major life activities. This definition includes students not only with physical disabilities but those with mental illnesses as well.  

Once a student requests a 504 plan, an associate principal leads a student referral team who meets with school psychologists, administration, and guidance counselors to consider the student’s 504 plan request. After this initial screening to see if the student has a qualifying condition, the associate principal facilitates a 504 plan meeting where the student, their parents, one or more of their teachers, a guidance counselor, and other experts run through a list of criteria. The associate principal and guidance counselor consider student, parent, and teacher input before reaching a decision on whether a student qualifies for the 504 plan. If the student does qualify, then the group determines the student’s accommodations. 

Once granted, 504 Plan accommodations allow students to tailor their plan to their specific disability. 

“I have dyslexia and ADHD, so I use [the 504 plan] for those. It gives me extra time on tests and homework, and it allows me to go to another room [to take tests]. It also allows me not to be tested on spelling,” Acalanes junior Anie Heffernan said. 

504 Plan accommodations also help prevent students’ anxiety about distracting their peers.

“My main reason for having a 504 is for Tourette’s. I’m focusing on controlling my tics and not distracting other people [rather] than focusing on my test. If I’m by myself in a room, then I don’t have to focus on keeping my tics quiet so I can actually focus on my test,” Acalanes junior Kate Hassel said.

Students may also obtain a 504 Plan to reduce the strain on their body that overcompensating for their disability creates.

“I have decreased mobility in my right eye. I got my 504 because when I’m looking at things up close, it’s harder to see, and my eyes start to ache,” senior Benjy Braunstein said.

Not only do 504 plans help students achieve equal access in the classroom, but they also accelerate the accommodation application process for standardized tests.

“For the SAT, I actually get triple [the] time,” Heffernan said. 

With some students receiving support to make the standardized testing process more equitable, some students may try to exploit this process by requesting 504 Plans for extra time on standardized tests. 

“I think there’s definitely a bit of that [cheating the system] going on. Obviously, it’s wrong, and it tarnishes the whole 504 [process] because then people can look at it and say, ‘Oh you just want it for the extra time, you’re cheating.’ People that are doing that are putting the people that actually need it at even more disadvantage,” Braunstein said.

While the administration’s 504 Plan qualification process weeds out most community members trying to misuse the system, teacher input sheds light on the unclear cases. 

“The 504 program has to hold its own integrity and make sure that it’s targeting the students who need the help,” Plant said. “I think it’s natural for parents to keep asking for things for their kids. I haven’t had any [requests] that were so egregiously trying to subvert the purpose of the whole program. What we do if we’re unsure is we reach out more for expert help and input from the teachers.”

According to Plant, input from teachers and student grades reflect educational impact. However, Plant acknowledges that grades can sometimes be an inaccurate measure of success.

“You can have a student who needs a 504 plan even if they have straight A’s because what we also try to support is those kids working above and beyond and extra hard and [putting in] extra hours to get their grades,” Plant said. “Educational impact can be as simple as grades but it also can be like anecdotally, from teachers. The teachers see that you need it, and families too.”

Some students, however, find that it is much harder to receive support without student grades proving educational impact.

“Just because someone achieves high grades doesn’t mean that they should be denied access to accommodations that relieve stress and help them work more efficiently and better. The school should want kids to achieve the highest level grades possible,” said a student who wished to remain anonymous, his right under federal disability laws. 
That student went through the process of applying for a 504 plan, but administration was unable to fulfill the student’s request. 

“The administrator told me something along the lines of, ‘We are not here to help kids go above and beyond and achieve extremely high grades. We just need kids to pass’. After a lengthy discussion the administration decided that I basically had too high grades to have a 504,” the anonymous student said. 

In response to the student’s claim, Plant reinforced that grades are not a factor in the consideration process. Instead, the administration looks at how well a student is accessing the curriculum.

“We, on occasion, have granted [504 plans] for high achieving students who are not able to access the curriculum… It is supposed to be about access, and there are times where the student is accessing the curriculum independent of grades. Grades don’t matter, in that determination,” Plant said. “The 504 plan is not necessarily about getting everyone to get straight As … every story is individualized and we really try to boil it down to, ‘Does this student really need this, and what do they really need?’” 

During distance learning, the distractions of learning from home led some students to depend more on their 504 Plan.

“Being at home during school really fed on my ADHD. It was hard because there were so many distractions and that’s basically what ADHD is, getting off-topic from what you’re supposed to be doing. So [the 504 Plan] helps because I would always get distracted and so I’d use that a lot for homework extensions,” Heffernan said.

Similarly, some students with 504 Plans experienced challenges with the increase in screen time during distance learning.

“[Distance learning] made me use [the 504 Plan] a little more, just because my eyes weren’t as good at spending the entire day on the computer,” Braunstein said.

Schonauer acknowledges that keeping track of students’ 504 Plans can be overwhelming for teachers.

“Teachers are pretty accommodating, but I think because teachers have a lot of students, they need a reminder [of 504 accommodations],” Schonauer said. 

 Teachers now receive a roster of students with 504 Plans and their accommodations a few weeks into the school year. This allows teachers to be mindful of which students need more support.

“For testing, I communicate directly with each student and ask what is best for them. Then I, as needed, continue to have dialogues with students about adjustments that could be made that might be supportive or helpful to them,” health and AP Environmental Science teacher Jada Paniagua said.

While the implementation of accommodations may create challenges, the overall 504 Plan program plays a key role in establishing equity for students with disabilities.

“I think it’s important for students with disabilities to get what they need to be able to demonstrate their true understanding of the material. I do think [504 Plans] help students demonstrate what they know while making sure they’re not discriminated against for something that they need. Also, most accommodations help [the entire class]. So sometimes if the teacher can do something in their classroom that actually helps everyone in the whole class,” Schonauer said.


AC Speech Foto 504 Plans/Mara Korzeniowska, Acalanes High School