IEPs, 504s, and the role of the Special Education Department at Blair
The student’s name with an IEP will be changed to protect their identity.
Have you ever received a new glasses prescription, looked up at the front of the classroom and finally been able to read the small words on the whiteboard? Adjusting your glasses prescription can be transformative, as it puts you on a level playing field with those with 20/20 vision.
The same concept applies to education. 7.2 million public school students used Special Education services — also known as Individualized Education Programs — in the 2021-2022 school year. The IEP is mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) a federal act to provide support for students with disabilities. Many more students fall under a 504 plan, a plan governed by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. These students receive their “prescription” to ensure educational equity. These two similar programs have confused parents and students for years with their nuanced distinctions. What are they and what is the difference? Who is eligible? Is one better than the other?
Individualized Education Plans
To receive an IEP, a student must have an acknowledged educational disability, certified through an educational and psychological assessment. These educational disabilities include: visual impairment, deafness, certain cases of autism, certain cases of ADHD, and many more. Once parents or teachers discover certain tell-tale signs like reading troubles or math struggles, they can contact the special education department. Paul Mensah, Blair’s school resource teacher, will hold a meeting with parents/guardians, the student and a randomly selected general education teacher to determine if further testing needs to be done. If so, a certified special education teacher and Janice Campbell, Blair’s school psychologist, will conduct the educational and psychological assessments respectively. Mensah decides whether an IEP is granted after a holistic review of available data.
An IEP as a tailored educational plan that adapts to fit students as they continue to grow and learn. For sophomore Sarah, her IEP adapts to her hearing loss. “I have a microphone that I use with my teachers. It connects to my hearing aids. And so it just sends the sound from them directly to my hearing aids,” Sarah says.
Montgomery Blair’s Special Education resource teacher Paul Mensah explains how IEPs aim to make learning in school more equitable for every student. “IEPs are for every student who has a learning issue that prevents them from being successful in an academic setting… It gives them equal access to the classroom,” Mensah says.
In the classroom, Sarah receives additional visual support to ensure she is successful. “I get preferential seating or the copies of lesson notes that the teacher has, so if they're giving a lecture or something I can see visually so I don't miss anything,” she says.
However, in Sarah’s experience, obtaining the accommodations for her IEP was challenging, as she received no support from the school in obtaining them. “What I really hate about [support for IEPs] is the school doesn't give you anything. You have to actually say what you want. They don't really introduce you to the process to begin with… I was really lucky because [my family was] already familiar with the [IEP] process. So it wasn't very hard for me. I found it really helpful, really easy, but I know it's not like that for everyone,” she says.
The overarching goal of IEPs is to provide students with extra resources, such as extra time or a personal educator. These resources equip them with the necessary skills for the future. “The goal of the IEP is that when a student leaves Blair High School, we've taught them skills that they can use so that beyond high school, whether it's college or work, they don't need the IEP anymore [because] they have learned how now to address these concerns [on their own],” Mensah says.
There are two special classes for students with IEPs: a resource class and a developmental reading class. These classes are Blair’s Special Education department’s responsibility.
Only students with IEPs attend the resource classes, where the department groups students together into a class where they share similar learning challenges. In this class, special education teachers provide each student with specific, one-on-one instruction to teach them executive functioning skills such as time management, organization, and flexibility.
The other class, focused on developmental reading, aims to make sure that each student is able to successfully read and process what is in front of them. Mensah explains that since reading is such an integral skill, special education teachers prioritize making sure that each student is up to par with their reading. “If you're not adequate at reading, if your reading skills aren't strong enough, it's going to impact you in school, it’s going to impact you in life,” Mensah says.
However, when not in the specialized classes, students with IEPs still attend general education classes, just with another special education teacher in the classroom who helps co-teach. Special Education teacher Amy Parrish explains some specific strategies that she and her colleagues utilize when working with special education students in co-taught classes. “[We] break things down like giving someone a writing assignment [with] sentence starters so people know how to begin the writing process. Give graphic organizers so people can put things down. Even graphic organizers for notes sometimes,” she says.
One of the more important, and often overlooked, roles of special education teachers is to monitor specific students with IEPs on a daily basis. Teachers do this to ensure that each student is keeping up with their school work, and not encountering any unexpected challenges in the classroom. “I'm monitoring their grades on a daily or weekly basis and following up with them…… coordinating with teachers and sending emails to teachers to say ‘Hey, can you let me know what's going on with this student? How is their attendance?’ ‘How are they doing?’” Parrish says.
A 504 has a similar goal of promoting educational equity but stems from a completely different source. The Special Education Department manages IEPs at Blair, and the Counseling Department oversees 504 Plans. This is due to the fact that a 504 plan is specific in that the student does not need special education services.
Students can only obtain a 504 plan if they have a medical diagnosis. The actual text from section 504 of the rehabilitation act is a “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a major life activity.” The important thing to note is that many different conditions can be considered impairments such as ADHD or autism for example.
Parents or counselors may organize a meeting with the school psychologist, a general education teacher, an administrator, and sometimes the student (if willing). Based on the meeting, psychology reports, previous medical diagnosis, and teacher reports, counselors select necessary accommodations for the students, which can include extra time, visual aids, oral exams, and small group instruction.
Sarah explains that communication in setting up these meetings is not always easy. “For the families it's really hard to set up because of emailing. There's a lot of emailing…. Parents can request a follow up meeting and the meeting has to happen only within 90 days of the request. But if they don't reply to the email at all, there's no confirmation that a request was even made,” she says. This leads to confusion and makes the already tedious process even more challenging.
Burke Olesewski, a counselor at Blair, explains that not everyone is granted a 504 or IEP automatically. “Let's just say a student has straight A's. No concerns with attendance, no concerns about grades, things like that. They might be eligible because of their official diagnosis. But the team might determine, because [said student] has 99% or higher and all seven classes, that for right now we do not believe that he needs actual accommodations,” Olesewski says.
IEPs are annual and provide additional interventions through specialized instructional goals and objectives. 504 plans provide accommodations without the need for specialized instruction and do not need to be updated every year. Sarah puts the difference simply. “The difference between IEPs and 504 plans, is that 504 plans don't have goals IEPS do,” she says.
At Blair, students in IEPs, participate in co-taught classes where another teacher tailors the general education. Students on a 504 plan, however, have accommodations within general education classes. According to Olesewski, it is not 504 vs IEP. “It’s a case-by-case basis. The IEP is a little bit more thorough. There are certain set goals at the social, emotional, and academic levels that they need to be meeting. There are not set stringent goals that students need to meet with the 504 plan,” he says.
Both IEPs and 504 plans help to create a more equitable school environment, ensuring that students are able to thrive academically and learn valuable life skills. Olesewski agrees that both departments serve the same purpose. “In the end, our goal is to help best support our students, you know, whichever plan they go with,” he says.
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