Even as an Insider, I Didn’t Have a Say in My Son’s 504 Plan

My son was diagnosed with ADHD when he was in fourth grade. I had spent months trying to navigate the system and get services and accommodations for him under Section 504 of Illinois’s Rehabilitation Act, which protects those “ages 3 to 22 with a disability that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” My son qualified for support under the section, “limited ability to learn, think, and concentrate.”  

During my first Section 504 meeting at his school, I came prepared to share everything I was doing to help my son at home. I thought there would be an opportunity to discuss and collaborate on a plan. Instead, I learned that the accommodations were already set, and it would be another year before they were reviewed again.  I signed the many documents handed to me and left with a pit in my stomach, feeling like a bystander instead of  a member of the decision-making team.

I think about that meeting a lot as students with disabilities return from the pandemic. Not much has changed in how schools approach such meetings, and yet students have more needs than ever before. This is especially true for students of color, low-income students, and those from underserved communities.

Parents like me need to be part of the decision-making teams at the school or we risk furthering the inequities in our system. For many parents, sharing their opinions is not easy. For example, cultural barriers prevent many Hispanic parents from questioning teachers or school administrators. My husband has not joined me at our son’s Section 504 meetings because our cultural background is rooted in believing that schools are a hierarchy system, with teachers and school administrators at the top. This perceived hierarchy has made my husband uncomfortable. It is only because I’m an educator myself that I knew I could help my son with his journey through the education system. Yet, even as an insider I felt that I didn’t have a say in the school’s plan for my son.  

How Can Schools Ensure Parents Are Part of The Team?

If we’re to provide adequate support for students with disabilities, we need to support their parents. How can we make sure that parents and students understand their roles and responsibilities in creating a plan under Section 504? How can we increase student and parent participation, especially in the Latino community? 

First, we need to ensure parents feel comfortable enough to voice their opinions. We can survey parents to gauge their level of understanding of their child’s plan and of their rights and responsibilities. Schools and districts could use the data from the survey to offer workshops for parents to learn how to advocate for their children. 

Second, schools should review students’ 504 plans on a much more frequent basis than the annual minimum, especially any plan that relates to behavior and access to learning. As a teacher, when I implement any intervention for students I typically check in after six to eight weeks. This does not happen with the 504 plans. Reviewing the 504 plans quarterly, having regular check-ins with parents, and establishing clear feedback loops that involve teachers, students, and parents would ensure that the plan is adjusted as needed and is effective.

Finally, students and parents must attend 504 meetings. Right now, this is not a requirement, so many of these meetings take place without the most important stakeholders in the room: the child the accommodations will serve and their parents. My son, for example, attended just one meeting in eight years. Older students should not only be required to attend, but the school should make sure that they have a say in the plan created for them. Schools should take advantage of this opportunity to teach students to advocate for themselves, so they’re empowered and feel responsible for their own education.  

We must do more to support students with disabilities and to ensure that parents from different cultural backgrounds feel safe enough to offer feedback that benefits their children’s education. Schools can help provide the bridge that parents from culturally diverse backgrounds need while educators, together with parents, can help empower students to advocate for their learning and education. A strong partnership between school and home is the key to the success of my son and other students like him.

Photo by Sandy Millar for Unsplash.

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Veronica Rodriguez

Veronica Rodriguez teaches 4th grade Spanish Dual Language at Juliette Low School in Arlington Heights, Illinois. She is a 2020-21 Teach Plus Illinois ILSTOY Policy Fellow and the 2021 Bilingual Teacher of the Year.

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