Martin proposes extra special education staff to manage 504 plans

Anna Dueholm

The number of Wilson students with 504 plans has increased significantly, from 45 plans in 2015 to 167 as of this February. In response, Principal Kimberly Martin has included new special education staff members in the budget for the next school year, which was approved on February 24.

504 plans are a set of accommodations for students with a medical diagnosis that inhibits learning. This applies to anyone from a student in a wheelchair to someone with diabetes or ADHD, and the plan is created individually based on the level of difficulty a student experiences in a number of areas, including moving, walking, or concentrating.

At Wilson, the number of students with these plans is on the rise. In the 2014-15 school year, 45 students had 504 plans, which made up 2.4 percent of the student body. That number has nearly quadrupled over the past six years, with 167 plans as of this month, making up 8.9 percent of the student body. 

The high number of 504 plans has proven to be a challenge for school officials trying to meet the needs of these students. Students with IEPs, which mandate special education services, are automatically provided with services and funding, but students with 504 plans aren’t. “Central Office puts special education staff and aides on the budget because IEPs are a really strongly legally mandated program… 504 plans are just as legislated, all the same legal language, with zero support,” Martin said. 

Concerned that the number of plans has become too much for the school to manage, Martin considered hiring a 504 coordinator to set up 504 meetings, provide teachers with the plans, and ensure the accommodations are carried out as mandated. “That was something I definitely thought we needed to put some kind of resource towards because it’s almost to the point of being unmanageable,” Martin said. While the budget didn’t allow for a specific 504 coordinator, Martin allocated funds for seven new special education staff members. One new Inclusion Resource teacher will likely take over some responsibility for 504 plan coordination. 

Martin also noted the importance of ensuring plans are being designated correctly. “504s have blown into these giant documents that look just like IEPs, but they have none of the financial resources or staff support that come with it,” Martin said. “We need to make sure we are actually putting authentic accommodations and not modifications on the 504s and that 504s are being used as the way they should, not as a wealthy parent’s version of an IEP.”

School officials have noticed a number of parents requesting plans for their students specifically in order for them to be allowed extra time on college entrance exams. Recently, more has been done to ensure the legitimacy of plans issued. “Last year, it was documented that the 504 team was asking for documentation, such as doctor’s notes, and they were using that as the contingency for providing the plan,” social worker Lacey Maddrey said. 

At a 504 plan training over the summer, counselors were reminded that medical documentation is not required as proof of a need for a 504 plan. “I think the law is open-ended enough that some schools felt they just wanted more information to ensure there is actually a concern that allows them to have this accommodation,” Maddrey explained.