We recently caught up with Doug Lenzini, who has been the Director of Admissions at Bridges Academy for the past seventeen years. Bridges is an independent school committed to providing high-quality primary and secondary education to gifted students who also have complex learning challenges. Doug explains that Bridges students are twice-exceptional or 2e. They are gifted / highly gifted but have struggled to find a successful fit at more traditional schools due to their challenges that run the gamut from ADHD to the Autism Spectrum. The admissions process for these 2e students is extremely involved and Doug takes extra care in ensuring the right fit for the student and the school.
Doug started the conversation by sharing the unique makeup of the school: “We provide a unique program for these very bright kids that need support for both of their exceptionalities. Our school attracts a remarkable group of educators I consider Renaissance people because you have to, in essence, become an expert in both gifted and special needs education.” He pointed out that 2e children are often light years ahead of their peers intellectually and that teachers have to set an extremely high bar while remaining sensitive to the students’ complex needs. “You have to be on top of your discipline because these kids may know as much or more about a subject than you do.”
Because the school is so highly specialized, the application and admissions process is different than other independent schools because the population is so unique. Doug says “I do a tremendous amount of screening before I even advise a family to apply, so we don’t have a lot of families applying whose child doesn’t fall within our profile.” The comprehensive screening ensures that the school mitigates disappointment early for students who wouldn’t be a great fit at the academy. Having the school take the initiative first is indeed unusual, but fits perfectly for the niche that Bridges has created. For this reason, the number of applications Bridges receives is fewer than other independent schools and the acceptance rate is high—at the 70% or more mark.
As far as financial aid programs, Bridges offers need-based financial aid to accepted students and as Doug says, the school “tries to spread the financial aid budget to benefit as many students as possible.”
Who are Bridges students? They typically have multiple gifts, talents, passions and interests. They may struggle with executive function skills like prioritizing, organizing, planning and follow-through. They may have processing speed deficits, language-based disabilities, OCD, anxiety and ADHD. There may be delays in their social-emotional development. Doug says that a lot of these challenges may be exacerbated in an environment that is not designed to meet all of their needs.” He also points out that some kids, especially exceptionally gifted ones, are just a little bit quirky and thrive in a place that supports their brand of personality and perspective. “There are just some people who see the world differently and socially, they just interact with the world differently.” He notes that these social challenges are just as impactful on a student’s learning path and Bridges strives to provide a supportive environment for all its students.
At the heart of Doug’s job is identifying kids that will be a good fit for the school and we were curious how he does it. Doug says “On the gifted side, most kids have had some sort of evaluation that includes standardized achievement tests and/or IQ testing and we certainly look at that to support giftedness. But when you have kids who are twice-exceptional, often times they don’t test well because of their disability or their difference or anxiety or ADHD. So the full-scale IQ test, for example, may not reflect their true abilities.” Because of these students’ unique characteristics, the school is careful about how it interprets assessments. “We also rely on other things, like academic history, work samples and we talk to teachers and other support people and tutors because they might say, ‘this kid is super smart even though it doesn’t show on paper.’” Doug says the admissions process relies heavily on human input and ultimately, the child, him or herself, is the most important element. Doug also points out that kids have really surprised him before. “I have looked at test results and thought to myself, wow, this is a tough one, and then that kid walks into my office and blows me away with their intellect and creativity.” While the school welcomes any supportive information like ISEE test results, they don’t require it. Because of its specialty, Bridges, by and large, is student specific when it comes to application requirements.
Doug says that special care is needed with the interview process when dealing with twice-exceptional students. “As part of the screening process, I will meet with the child – often more than once – because they’re anxious initially.” The school recognizes that extra care is needed and the process can be significantly more involved than at traditional schools so as much personal interaction as possible is ideal. “I prefer the word ‘conversation’ because our kids are struggling in ways that neuro-typical kids may not. If the family ultimately applies, the student spends a full day (or more if needed) as an applicant visitor. The applicant will also interview or have a conversation with the division director and head of the school.” Doug points out just how much human interaction is involved in the process. He says that while he does the majority of the interviewing, other faculty members will reach out to the prospective students as well and make sure to talk with them so as many people as possible are part of the process. Doug says that the main thing they are trying to get from the conversation is a complete understanding of who the child really is. “I want to learn about each child’s strengths, passions, interests, and motivations. I want to know what works for them, how they learn and also what’s getting in the way of their happiness at school. Is it just their differences or disabilities? Their environment? Family dynamics? It can be a lot of things.” It’s very common that the kids have more than one thing going on. They’re very complex. They have a dominant challenge, but usually, there are also secondary and tertiary challenges that can make their educational experience even more difficult because there isn’t just one thing that a teacher can focus on in trying to help them.”
Like the other admissions director’s we’ve spoken with Doug is emphatic that the admissions process isn’t about ‘testing’ or ‘judging’ a child. Rather, it’s always about finding the right fit. Doug says “I think there is a lot of anxiety from parents about whether their kids are going to be a match. I think we need to remind them that it’s really all about the family. The primary goal is figuring out if our school is going to be the best fit for their child, a place where he or she is going to flourish, be happy and be prepared to go out into the world.” With Bridges students especially, parents have often spent countless hours trying to find an appropriate environment for their child. Doug says that there is a very real fear about the school being just another disappointment. “Oftentimes, their child has been to more than one school and the family is hopeful that the next school will finally be the right one.” Doug is hyper-aware of this disappointment and is vigilant in the screening process to ensure promises that can’t be kept aren’t being made.
Parents of twice-exceptional students are often worried that a school is going to immediately rule their child out because of past behavioral issues, but the key, Doug says, is that the school understand the cause of these behaviors and have supports in place to address them. Keeping this in mind, Doug is careful to point out that Bridges isn’t for everyone and they don’t have the capacity to support some students’ needs. “If a child is more severely impacted, they often will need a different kind of school.” Doug pays special attention to these needs and will often talk parents through the process of finding the appropriate placement for their child. “I want to reassure parents that if their child falls within our parameters in terms of behavior and degree of challenges, they don’t need to worry—we are used to seeing these things—that’s why we exist.”
Another issue Doug brought up in our conversation deals with whether or not Bridges really prepares children for their future beyond the school. “Parents often think there is a stigma attached to their child because of their second exceptionality. They are worried colleges will rule them out because of their challenges. What we’ve found is that this isn’t the case at all and our students go on to excellent schools because they are appealing to higher education. They are gifted, highly gifted or even profoundly gifted, so their intellect and creativity are desirable. Happily, universities are getting to understand that this is a population that is a huge asset to their schools.” Doug says the school takes the responsibility of preparing students for college and the workforce very seriously indeed. “We’re not going to pamper these kids and let them go into the world clueless. We teach self-awareness, self-expression, self-advocacy and other skills they need to navigate a world that may not be so understanding.” Doug also admits readily that the school is ever-evolving. “These are complex kids and we need to continue to understand them and pay attention to them. We don’t have it all figured out and we are constantly tweaking and trying new approaches to make things work for each student.” He goes on to say “We will never create the perfect program for these twice-exceptional kids, but we dedicate ourselves each year to deepening and refining our model and improving what we offer our students.”
Bridges Academy is a unique school and Doug’s work is an incredible lifesaver for many families out there with exceptional children. He says “Sadly, these kids are used to being identified by their deficits. We believe they should be identified first and foremost by the amazing things they are. We are here to feed and nurture and build up the wonderful gifts the students have.” Parents will no doubt identify with the anxieties that Doug has pointed out and he says “The first question I ask a parent is: Tell me about your child. What are his or her strengths? What do they love doing? What are they passionate about?” Ultimately Bridges Academy is providing an opportunity for exceptional children and their families and working vigilantly to bridge the gaps that have traditionally existed for twice-exceptional students.