Tombolo Academy Story

There’s every chance you’ve never heard the term ‘Twice Exceptional’. It’s reasonably new and only starting to gain mainstream acceptance.

But twice exceptional (2e) people have been around for a long time, just not necessarily carrying that label. Catherine Kirby, founder of the Tombolo Academy for such children, suggests that Steve Jobs, Richard Branson and Jamie Oliver all identify as or are believed to be twice exceptional. Others believed to have fitted the diagnosis include Charles Darwin, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Mozart and George Washington. These are people with the capacity to change the world.

To be considered ‘twice exceptional’, a person must identify as gifted on Gagné´s Differential Model of Giftedness and Talent while also carrying a disability, as recognised by the Disability Discrimination Act. For children, this can be a difficult load, as they are often extremely intelligent and way ahead of classmates in a discipline such as maths or another subject, while also struggling with mainstream schooling because of their disability.

One of Catherine’s sons was 11 years old when she realised he was living in this world. At the absolute upper end of ability for mathematics, he was also dyslexic, which saw him removed from the top maths group because he couldn’t spell. “The one thing he could achieve at, they took away from him because they were concentrating on the difficulty he had in another area, which was spelling and writing,” she recalled. “And so he internalised it – you know, I’m stupid, I’m dumb, I’m an idiot. And because they have got this high ability, they are also very conscious of where they are with their peers.”

Catherine says this is a very common story among 2e students, which is why Tombolo Institute has been created, as a specific, targeted entity, spun off from Kids Like Us, the social enterprise she and Anne Jackson created in 2012, which is also dedicated to supporting, counselling and advocating for 2e children. (It was created after another of Catherine’s sons, also 2e, sat at the back of a parents meeting and listened quietly to stories of children self-harming, running away and not coping, and, on the drive home, came up with the full business plan for a social enterprise to help those kids. He’s now on the Board.)

The Tombolo Institute provides a physical space and an officially accredited school for 2e children. It started small, thanks to all the many official hoops to be jumped through and the minor matter of a pandemic, but is now taking shape. “To open a school, you have to have 11 kids,” Catherine said. “We planned on 16, but we opened with 21. We now have 26 and next year will be capped at 35. We’re putting a cap on it at 35, just because we need to really solidify and get the whole school and the staff and everything settled in.”

The vision to open the academy became a reality after a long-time supporter of Kids Like Us, Newsboys Foundation, introduced Catherine to Social Venture Partners Melbourne, where highly successful corporate volunteers with specific skills and knowledge come together to help social enterprises survive and prosper. Having had the idea of creating a school, Catherine had no real idea how to make that happen, although multi-year dedicated funding from Newsboys Foundation provided time and space to explore the concept.

Two major challenges were actually finding an abandoned school that could become Tombolo (they did, in Beaumaris), and satisfying the understandably very strict requirements of the Victorian department of Education to win accreditation and funding as a genuine recognised school.

“It was a blank sheet of paper,” SVP’s John Craven recalled. “The last problem, really was finding the students because there are plenty of them.”

Estimates vary as to how many 2e children there are, with estimates landing between 3 per cent and 9 per cent of the population. That would mean upward of 35,000 in Victoria alone, and John said SVP was attracted to helping Kids Like Us create Tombolo as a way of preparing 2e children to be successful in the wider world.

“At SVP, our focus is ensuring inclusion in society, or the opportunity to be included,” John said, “and we particularly focus on adolescence and ensuring their journey is a journey to inclusion in society, not exclusion.

“This fitted really well with that because the idea of Tombolo is that this is an intervention which allows students to come out of the mainstream, develop the skills they need to re-enter the mainstream, and then thrive. This isn’t a school for twice exceptional students forever. It’s a school to enable them to gain the skills they need to be, in the long haul, citizens. Because twice exceptional people often, when they’re younger, have various behavioural characteristics, they are often not being allowed to fit in because they’re not understood. That’s a slippery slide because it ends up with those people with wasted lives, and if you go to the 2e nuance, not only is it an ordinary wasted life, it’s a person with a talent with a wasted life and that’s a loss to all of us.”

Parent Rosetta Scicluna tells of her dyslexic son’s struggle at school with teachers who could not or would not provide the necessary individual support for his needs, and the difficulty of connecting with other kids. “Kids Like Us changed everything for us,” she said. “It enabled a little boy who was lost and misunderstood to be a part of a community who ‘got’ him. His confidence has gone from zero to 100 per cent and he feels that he has a ‘safe place’ to learn.”

The Tombolo Academy allows its students to have the individually tailored support each child requires to best enable their exceptional abilities to soar while also learning how to manage their disability to successfully navigate the world.

Catherine says it’s in all of our interests to help these children rise. “One of the things on my bucket list is that one day someone is going to calculate what the economic costs are of these people, these children not being supported,” she said, “because on one hand they can be a massive drain on society. But on the other hand, they can save the planet and will be a massive resource to our society in a time when we absolutely need it.”

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