Twice exceptional, doubly disadvantaged? How schools struggle to serve gifted students with disabilities

twice exceptional doubly disadvantaged how schools struggle to serve gifted students with disabilities

Parents say it’s often impossible to find schools to educate bright kids who have disabilities. Now some are fighting to change that.

NEW YORK — To Eva Santiago, her son’s education has always felt like an impossible dilemma.

Before elementary school, the boy was diagnosed with autism, ADHD and anxiety, and in kindergarten he was placed in a small, self-contained class for kids with disabilities.

But he was articulate and curious, so when he was 6, Santiago took him to be tested for the city’s exclusive gifted-and-talented program. She was pleased when his score earned him one of the coveted spots.

But in his larger gifted-and-talented class, he became anxious and easily upset. He fought with students and teachers and spent most of the school day roaming the halls. After he kicked a security guard and the school called the police, Santiago said, she begged administrators to return him to a self-contained class. There, at least, his teachers could manage his behavioral challenges — even if it meant he breezed through his school work and learned little.

“Other kids would still be doing the assignments and he would be done,” recalled Santiago. “He just didn’t know what to do with himself.”

The boy’s experience is typical for a category of students known as “twice exceptional,” or 2e. These kids — believed to make up at least 6 percent of all students who have a disability — possess high academic aptitude but struggle with ADHD, mild autism, dyslexia or other learning and behavioral challenges.* They are notoriously difficult for schools to serve effectively for two reasons, say advocates, parents and some educators. Often, their intelligence masks their disability, so they are never assessed for special education or don’t receive the services best suited for them. In other cases, they’re placed in special education classes tailored to their disability but grade levels behind the school work they’re capable of.

“We see kids whose challenges don’t show up on their report card, so they aren’t getting services,” said Jennifer Choi, a parent and founder of the advocacy group 2eNYC and a trustee of the nonprofit Twice Exceptional Children’s Advocacy. “And we see kids who are gifted, but they also have a disability, who lose the ability to participate in any sort of accelerated program because those programs often decline to provide special education services.”

But a handful of school systems across the country are searching for better ways to accommodate bright students with disabilities. Colorado trains teachers across the state in twice exceptionality, for example, while Montgomery County, Maryland, is perhaps the only school district to offer self-contained classes for students in elementary school who need both an accelerated curriculum and more support than they would receive in a mainstream classroom.

Now parent activists in New York City are fighting to get the country’s largest school system to be more responsive to 2e students. Last fall, after Choi’s group presented the New York City Department of Education with a survey of more than 500 parents that described the challenges facing 2e students, the agency began to offer training to staff in gifted-and-talented programs on how to work more effectively with students who have ADHD. In the last few years, three of the city’s most selective public high schools — Brooklyn Technical, Bard College and Townshend Harris — have sent teachers to learn about twice exceptionality from employees of the Quad Preparatory School, a six-year-old private school that focuses on educating these students. And in New York state, lawmakers introduced bills in 2017 that would require teacher training about twice exceptionality and programming for twice exceptional students.