A student's 504 Plan is embodied in a written document developed at a "504 meeting" between school staff and parent(s), which classroom teachers and school personnel will thereafter be required to execute. The purpose of a 504 Plan is to list accommodations to be implemented, which will assist the disabled student to access their education equal to peers. A well-written 504 plan can truly make the difference between success and failure in school.
What is important in a 504 plan? How does a parent know the plan is "good" and will help their child? This will depend on many different factors, not the least of which is the student involved and his/her unique needs. Usually when I review 504 plans developed between a parent and school, they are extremely inadequate, often consisting of only preferential seating, vague statements, and requirements for the parent, not the school. As such, they can be difficult to enforce and may be wholly inadequate for the student.
Some guidelines I use in developing 504s are as follows:
1) Requested Accommodation List: Prior to a 504 meeting, a list of accommodations the child needs to access the classroom/learning/school should be developed. This list is valuable as a starting point and will help make the 504 meeting more productive for all. This list can be provided by parents/their attorney to the school, in advance of a 504 meeting, to ensure that all requested items can be addressed.
2) Specific Accommodations: Accommodations should be as specific as possible, so they are enforceable and verifiable. If an accommodation is not written clearly, it may be difficult to verify if the accommodation is being implemented and easy for that accommodation to be ignored. Phrases such as "as needed" by themselves can allow the teacher to determine when an accommodation is necessary, which may be never! An accommodation never implemented is valueless. Instead, more specific terms should be outlined, such as "one time a class period "or "three times every 60 minutes and as needed." The language will be fact/student dependent, but the clearer the language, the better for ALL.
3) Tailored To This Student: Accommodations must be specifically tailored to the student and his/her needs. What does the student actually need in the class, after class, on breaks? For example, if the student cannot take notes there could be an accommodation that teacher notes and overheads will be provided electronically at the beginning of the month. Difficulty focusing in class? There could be an accommodation for subtle redirection/check-ins by the teacher at specific intervals. Can the student not write down assignments? There should be a home-school communication system set up with weekly email to provide the assignments, upcoming tests, etc.
4) Legibility: Often schools try to squish a 504 and accommodations into a pre-printed form. However, this may mean accommodations are shortened, placed in size 4 font, or otherwise hard to read. An attachment page or simply a more spacious 504 document may be developed so anyone picking up the 504 can read it quickly and easily without squinting. If an accommodation is unreadable, or takes too long to decipher, a teacher may skip it, which will ensure it won't be implemented.
5) Accommodations Not Limited: Speaking of a pre-printed form, parents should know that they are not limited only to accommodations on a district's form, but may develop accommodations beyond the cookie cutter provided.
6) Accountability: Is there someone who is accountable for implementing each accommodation, such as the teacher, administrator or counselor? The parent can volunteer for some accommodations, e.g. originating an email to the teachers weekly to get a list of any missing assignments, upcoming due dates, etc. However, responsibility for execution should mainly fall on school personnel's shoulders.
7) OCR: Know what the Office for Civil Rights is and how to file a complaint with them in case the 504 is not implemented and/or the school refuses certain critical accommodations.
8) Attorney: Know a good attorney who can review the 504, help with an OCR complaint, express your concerns to the district and even accompany you to your next 504 meeting (can be very helpful for compliance and obtaining a clear 504).
504 Plans are very important and powerful documents. Don't underestimate the value of a well-written, legally enforceable plan, to your child's future and school success. There is only one shot at their education and falling behind can be problematic. As such, ensure your child's 504 Plan is specific, executable, and has the accommodations they need to succeed!
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