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June 3, 2010

Traveling an individualized road to education

by Natalie Rutsch, Page Editor
It happens all the time: a friend is over-energized, a teacher loses his train of thought, a peer drinks one too many Red Bulls before class. It's easy to jokingly blame attention deficit disorder (ADD) and move on with the conversation. But for some students who actually cope with ADD, other learning disabilities and physical handicaps that make schoolwork challenging, it's no laughing matter.

Facing obstacles

"A lot of people say, 'Did you take your meds this morning?' It doesn't hurt that much, [it] just makes you feel different," says sophomore Conor Donahue. Donahue, who has ADD, is one of 174 Blazers with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which provides accommodations for students who need significant intervention and typically work on their own level and at their own pace. Students can also receive accommodations with 504 plans, which serve to level the playing field for students with handicaps such as vision problems, according to resource counselor Marcia Johnson.

Dealing with special accommodations is not always easy; students with IEPs and 504 plans can feel self-conscious or become frustrated over balancing the logistics of their specific needs. In a school of nearly 3,000 students, juggling the needs of multitudes of students with IEPs and 504 plans is a difficult task for the special education department and the administration, and as a result students with special needs can face problems.

As part of his IEP, Donahue receives the help of a scribe who writes while he dictates written responses and extended time on tests during a specially reserved resource class that provides his accommodations.

Yoshi Yui, another sophomore with an IEP, depends on accommodations for his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Like Donahue, Yui has a resource class reserved for his accommodations, which include extended time, computer use for written assignments, access to a human reader - or Kurzweil, a computer program that reads text aloud - and access to a reduced distractions room for exams and standardized tests.

Unlike Donahue and Yui, junior Claire Hoffman doesn't have an IEP; she has a 504 plan. Hoffman's plan is for a physical problem that makes it difficult for her eyes to track lines of text. When eyes are working correctly, they skip from the first letter to the last letter of a word or phrase, but when Hoffman reads, one of her eyes will skip and the other won't, she says. For this reason, it takes Hoffman a lot of time and energy to read. Under her 504 plan, Hoffman has one and a half times the allotted test time, is exempted from use of a scantron because it is challenging for her to copy answers from the test to the bubbles and is allowed to use a computer to type written responses.

An issue of self-consciousness

Hoffman, who was diagnosed with her eye problem in third grade, now feels comfortable with her disability. During middle school, however, as part of the math and science magnet program at Takoma Park Middle School, Hoffman felt very self-conscious about her handicap. "I thought something must be wrong with me," she says, "In the magnet program especially, it was a terrible thing to admit you weren't as competitively intelligent." But as she built up confidence, Hoffman became a self-advocate in classes. "You have to be able to stand in front of the class and say 'I don't use a scantron because I can't,'" she says.

Donahue, on the other hand, still feels self-conscious about working on assessments separately from his peers, particularly during exams. During finals, he feels singled out when he goes to a separate room meant for people with scribe accommodations. "It's embarrassing to have friends ask why you weren't at the test," he says.

Beyond a feeling of isolation from his friends, peers have actively made Donahue feel uncomfortable about his ADD. "There's usually a lot of people who will treat you differently. They'll treat me like I won't understand them if they talk too fast, or they think I'm slow," says Donahue.

For Yui, accommodations are not a source of embarrassment. He says that his friends understand his disability and do not think less of him for it. While Yui's friends do tease him about it, their jokes are friendly rather than mean-spirited. Yui admits, "They're kind of jealous - accommodations are awesome."

Tough circumstances

But even though Yui generally enjoys the benefits of his accommodations, he has faced a few difficulties in the process of coordinating his educational needs. He recalls facing challenges when he and his parents were first trying to arrange for him to have a 504 plan and then when they were working to move his accommodations to an IEP. "My parents stepped up to the plate," says Yui. Nonetheless, Yui says it took months for him to secure his accommodations.

Additionally, while Yui says teachers and administrators generally do an excellent job of meeting his individual needs, he has encountered problems during exams. Last year, for instance, during his freshman final exams Yui had a human reader with a strong accent, which was sometimes challenging to understand. Yui thinks the specific reader was more geared toward students who were learning English as a second language, as opposed to students who had trouble focusing on long tests, like him. Yui also tested in an office that had windows into a room where there was a lot of activity - like teachers eating lunch - an unwelcome distraction for a person with ADHD.

Again, Yui met trouble on his Spanish midterm last winter. Due to a miscommunication, Yui was sent to his Spanish classroom for a listening portion of the test, only to find that there was no listening piece to the exam. So, Yui started another part of the exam with the rest of his Spanish class. Shortly later, an administrator came to the classroom to get Yui and moved him to another room designated for students with accommodations. While the move may seem insignificant, Yui says that it disrupted his focus, the very thing that his accommodations are meant to prevent. "When I lose focus it's very hard for me to regain focus," says Yui.

For Yui, incidents such as these are fairly isolated to exams and standardized tests. In fact, he admits that he often doesn't use his extra time accommodation on regular class assessments.

Unlike Yui, Hoffman takes advantage of her accommodations for tests and quizzes, and unlike Donahue and Yui, she doesn't have a resource class to make up assessments. Hoffman often faces frustration because she has to coordinate times with all of her teachers to finish tests or use other accommodations, a challenging feat with a rigorous school schedule like Hoffman's. "Teachers are busy people. They provide for a lot of classes so they tend to forget about the certain people who have problems," says Hoffmann.

As a result, she sometimes has to deal with a teacher forgetting to grade the tests she turns in late or forgetting that she needs extra time for a test. "It puts a lot of pressure on the students with these problems," says Hoffman.

And in a school as large as Blair, students with "these problems" are common. Within every group of friends, odds are that at least one receives accommodations under an IEP or 504 plan. And, like the name Individual Education Plan indicates, each student with an IEP or 504 plan has been personally affected by their accommodations in an individual way.



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