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At ReelAbilities Film Festival, an Overdue Look at 'Twice Exceptional' Students

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A documentary debuting today at the ReelAbilities Film Festival in New York City gives some overdue attention to the classification of students who have been a challenge for schools to educate: children who are gifted in one respect or another, but also have a cognitve or other form of disability.

"2e: Twice Exceptional" is the title of the film and the moniker given to such students. This special education population has been recognized for some time, though, as Education Week's Sarah D. Sparks reported a few years ago, they may be undercounted because researchers believe some special education evaluation methods diagnose learning disabilities but can fail to pick up evidence of giftedness in a child.

The 54-minute film by Thomas Ropelewsky shows us several educational experts who discuss the phenomenon of twice-exceptional students, though viewers could benefit from a bit more of a national perspective on the numbers and the range.

Instead, "2E" focuses on Bridges Academy, a private, K-12 school in Studio City, Calif., that exists to serve twice-exceptional students.

We meet high school students such as Harry, who has Tourette's syndrome and other disabilities but is a gifted learner. His parents describe an instance when Harry screeched through a restaurant lunch, attracting stares from other patrons.

We also meet Daniel, who is musically talented and could memorize the flag of every nation as a young child, but suffered from deep anxiety attacks in his former schools.

And Sydney, one of the few girls at the school, is artistically gifted, but has social anxieties.

"I'm very smart, but not good at parties," she says.

Other students are deep into their laptops, or their musical instruments, or can recite pi to hundreds of declmal points.

We learn about Bridges Academy's 82-minute class periods, which seem long, but then we are told there are lengthy breaks and that the twice-exceptional students benefit from fewer transitions.

We hear from quite a few teachers and specialists at the school, who are obviously doing well with a population that presents many challenges. One teacher agreed to dye her hair purple for a week if one of her students met a particular academic goal.

(We don't hear, in the film, about the $37,000 tuition, as disclosed on the academy's website.)

Ropelewsky says on the film's website that he is the father of a twice-exceptional student himself—his intellectually gifted son has ADHD.

"I know first-hand about the challenges of trying to understand and nurture a child who at one moment seems wise beyond his years and the next can throw a tantrum like a much younger child," the director says. 

My one knock on this well-intentioned documentary is that it is mostly made up of students, parents, teachers, and others speaking to the camera. There are some scenes of school activities, but not enough.

I'm thinking of a small (and short, for him) 2014 film by Ken Burns called "The Address," which was about a Vermont private school for boys with disabilities, and which I reviewed here. Burns (a tough one for any other documentarian to live up to) focused on the school's tradition of requiring students to learn to recite the Gettysburg Address from memory. But he really immersed us in the school over the better part of an academic year.

"2e: Twice Exceptional" does end with some uplifting news about each of the main students featured in the film. It's enough to lend some support to an assertion by one of the students early in the film that twice-exceptional students will grow up to make a mark on the world.

The ReelAbilities Film Festival, sponsored by JCC Manhattan, is March 10-16 at various locations in New York City. "2e: Twice Exceptional" debuts at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at JCC Rockland, and has five other showings in the next few days. I'll be reviewing one other education-related documentary from the festival in the next few days.

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