Accomodations challenge teachers, benefit students

Elie Salem, Editor-in-Chief

Senior Nick Koryukin is supposed to be given extra time on tests and assignments because of a IEP plan arranged years ago. In some classes, he gets exactly what he needs. In others, teachers either aren’t aware or forget about his accommodation, among a half-dozen other classmates in a similar situation. 

If a student has an IEP or 504 plan, they are given accommodations to help them stay on track. The accommodations range from simple, like sitting a vision-impaired student toward the front of the room, to more demanding, such as the teacher writing guided notes for a video. Wilson has 306 students with an IEP or 504 plan. The average teacher finds themselves accommodating five to seven of these students in each of their classes. 

While most teachers regard accommodations as beneficial, they often find themselves having trouble providing the accommodation at all times.

One teacher, who chose to remain anonymous, gave the example of the small-group testing accommodation, which requires those students to be placed in a separate room when testing. “It’s never really been formalized how you’re supposed to do [small-group testing]. So if I have like 30 other students that are in my class trying to take the test, where am I supposed to send this student?” they said. 

A student who has the small-group testing accommodation said the main problem is that there rarely is a staff member on hand to watch them take the exam and time it. 

Due to the ambiguity in enforcing the accommodation, the teacher said they can almost never provide the small-group testing accommodation unless the student has independently communicated with the special education department, something that’s happened only once or twice during the teacher’s career at Wilson.

The volume of other simpler accommodations, such as requiring clear study guides for tests, has led some teachers to change their teaching style for all their students, rather than just those with a learning disability. I think where we are now is that a lot of the accommodations the kids get are good for everyone. So whenever we do a lesson and we try to differentiate it any way or we try to build in accommodations I very rarely would [only give them to that student],” social studies teacher Michele Bollinger said. “When I first started teaching AP, you would come into class, you start testing [and] you test the entire period. I don’t really do that anymore.” 

Bollinger noted, however, that the changes in teaching style precipitated by a growth in student accommodations is not necessarily harmful. “[There’s] a negative in terms of kids not getting the stamina they used to,” she said. “But there’s [also] a positive in that those long tests used to be pretty nerve wracking and miserable.”

The dilemma of student accommodations is not whether they’re good or bad—most teachers seem to agree that they’re generally good, if a bit vague—it’s that some teachers find them difficult to implement. “Oh my God, does this person have preferential seating? Or do they get extended time on just tests? Or is it on their homework? How long is their extended time?” said one teacher, narrating their mental process. “Yeah. I do find that very hard to keep track of.”

The difficulty of always enforcing accommodations is exacerbated by overcrowding issues. In a private school, classes often have less than twenty students, a few of whom may have an accommodation. This makes keeping track of who needs what easier. At Wilson, however, classes can have as many as 35 students, with twice the number of students with accommodations.

Nevertheless, most teachers estimated that accommodations are usually, if not always, enforced. One teacher pegged accommodation enforcement as low as 75 percent of the time, while others believed it was done all the time.

Most students interviewed by The Beacon agreed with teachers, noting that while some lapses in enforcement might occur, they generally receive their accommodations. “I get my accommodations fairly often, sometimes I don’t get it because the teacher doesn’t remember I have a 504 and they have to check back with the counselor. At least once a month I won’t get it, [in] AP classes mostly,” said one student, who chose to remain anonymous.

Wilson has ultimately brought forward three solutions to confront the growth in accommodations: higher administration, led by budgeting decisions made by Principal Kimberly Martin and DCPS, have invested more in special education resources and staff; Special education staff, led by Assistant Principal Ronald Anthony, have tried to moderate plans to make them more manageable; Teachers, while not instilling change the same way administrators have, encourage students to advocate for themselves when they need a certain accommodation. 

The increased investment in special education staff, evident in the hiring of an Assistant Principal for Special Education and more case managers, was partly a result of increased lawsuits from parents. The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law estimates that the District spends $100 million annually on the tuition of special education students in private schools, primarily as a result of these suits.

In recent years, with the help of a larger special education team, Wilson has been able to prove to judges that they are capable of providing for special education students, disqualifying parents from using public school money to pay for private school tuition. “In the last couple of years we have been quite successful, we’ve been able to have some of those students returned. Either they’re now attending Wilson or the District has stopped paying and the parents are paying,” said Martin

Special education administration has been trying to address the difficulty of accommodation enforcement by moderating plans as students move into high school from middle school. A lot of accommodations that carried over from Deal weren’t really realistic for our setting here as high school students,” Anthony said. “Those type of things last for a school year, just up until we catch him. We’re able to troubleshoot and kind of try to keep the combinations [of accommodations] kind of common amongst the classroom so that our teachers gain a certain expertise.” 

Teachers stress that they work hard to ensure everyone gets their accommodation, but also want students to advocate for themselves outside of class. “As a teacher, I’ve always tried to make a partnership with students, and indicate to them [that] early on you need to let me know and remind me of this. There’s never going to be an issue, never going to be a stigma but you need to advocate for yourself,” said social studies teacher David Heckler.