The school where unique minds shine bright

The school where unique minds shine bright

In Victoria, more than 11,000 students currently find themselves outside the traditional education system, and recent research shows that a significant portion of them fall within the spectrum of neurodiversity.

Twice-exceptional students – those who are gifted in certain areas, like math or music, but who also have a learning or developmental challenge – are one such group who often operate in the shadows, with their remarkable potential and unique challenges frequently unacknowledged.

In many mainstream educational settings, these students may go unnoticed or, tragically, choose to disengage from formal education altogether.

However, one school in Melbourne’s southeast is working hard to change that.

Tombolo Academy, located in the bayside suburb of Hampton, is breaking new ground as the first school for twice-exceptional students in Australia.

Nurturing growth beyond traditional metrics

The school’s principal, Helen Barrett is a leader and educator who has dedicated her career to supporting neurodiverse students in Australia and the United Kingdom. Her expertise lies in building relationships with vulnerable students, including those with diverse needs and abilities, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, Attachment Disorder, Depression, Anxiety, and Pathological Demand Avoidance.

“My experiences have reinforced the importance of relationships, trust, and a holistic approach to education. I emphasise to our staff the importance of understanding each student's needs, interests, strengths, and challenges,” Barrett told The Educator.

“Trust is essential for every student, especially if they are neurodiverse, because they have often had such a negative experience in school. They arrive at Tombolo broken and fragile, with minimal self-esteem or resilience.”

Barrett said she and her Assistant Principal encourage continuous learning among the school’s staff who, by sharing their experiences and expertise, better understand the diverse needs of the students they teach.

“This involves offering professional development opportunities, both internally and externally, to equip our educators with the knowledge and skills necessary to support students effectively,” she said.

“We demonstrate how to keep lessons creative and innovative and share key strategies that support our students in the learning space.”

Barrett noted that building relationships with neurodiverse students often involves working closely with support staff, parents, and specialists, adding that she always emphasises the importance of open communication and collaboration with her team.

“We regularly meet to discuss individual student progress, share insights, and develop effective strategies,” she said.

“Our students need quick success, and I believe in acknowledging and celebrating small and significant milestones. This inspires our staff to see the potential in every student and stay motivated to support them on their unique journeys.”

Barrett said her experiences have taught her the importance of adaptability.

“I encourage our staff to be flexible in their teaching methods and classroom management, as different students may require different approaches,” she said.

“I remind them that success isn't always measured in traditional terms but by the growth and well-being of the students. Every student’s journey is different. Together, we can ensure that every student can thrive and succeed despite their unique challenges.”

Pushing boundaries in learning and leadership

Barrett said her love for adventure and determination to try new things instil in her a sense of curiosity that she strives to infuse into every facet of our learning activities.

“This helps to create a culture of innovation where both staff and students feel encouraged to explore, take risks, and even embrace failure as an integral part of the learning journey,” she said, adding one of the ways this adventurous spirit is fostered at Tombolo is through regular student excursions.

“These excursions are not just about having fun; they are designed to help our students build resilience. We firmly believe that these outdoor adventures, such as tree surfing, provide invaluable opportunities for students to demonstrate perseverance, teamwork, and skills that can be effectively transferred into the learning environment.”

Pointing out that the existing systems have let students down, Barrett emphasised the need to re-evaluate and transform the way schools engage with young people.

“It is not solely about academic achievement but also about nurturing well-rounded individuals prepared to face the challenges of the real world,” she said.

“The ethos of constant improvement is deeply ingrained in our educational approach. I am reading the book ‘Legacy’ by James Kerr, which delves into the journey of the All Blacks.”

Barrett said one quote from the book particularly resonates with her: "The challenge is always to improve, to always get better, even when you are the best. Especially when you are the best."

“This statement encapsulates our commitment to pushing boundaries, even when we're at the forefront of education,” she said.

“My passion for adventure and determination has shaped a leadership style that prioritises curiosity, innovation, and a resilient student and staff spirit. By rethinking traditional systems, fostering a love of learning, and embracing a commitment to constant improvement, we aim to provide a transformative educational experience that prepares our students for academic success and life.”

Solo taxonomy: Helping students see the bigger picture

Barrett said the strong relationships that are forged between students and staff at the school are preceded by a process of enhancing students' strengths and developing their resilience so they are confident when working on their challenges.

“We use the student's interests to ‘hook them in”. This might involve using Minecraft Education or a particular online game to inspire writing. We delve into their world and use it to engage them in their learning. We find provocations to pique their curiosity and get them to challenge the world around them,” Barrett said.

“Unlike mainstream schools, our class sizes are small, with a maximum of ten students. We have a calm and consistent school with flexible learning spaces. We also use technology to inspire our students. Our students need to know the ‘why’ when they are learning, and we find that Solo Taxonomy helps them see the bigger picture when they are learning.”

Barrett said Tombolo Academy also stresses the essential nature of strong school-family ties, saying this collaboration begins with a focus on acceptance, recognising that many of the school’s families have encountered negative experiences in education.

“At Tombolo, we prioritise creating an environment where students and their families feel accepted and acknowledged for their unique backgrounds and experiences. This unity is strengthened as families come together, sharing their stories and providing mutual support,” she said.

“We organise events throughout the year that invite families to engage actively, fostering a strong sense of community and partnership.”

Personal growth as a benchmark of success

When asked how the school measures the success of its tailored educational approach for twice-exceptional students, Barrett said success isn't solely defined by traditional metrics but rather by “profound transformations in students' lives.”

“We measure success by the extraordinary shifts in mindset and growth in self-confidence observed in students who may have been out of school for some time or struggled to fit in a mainstream setting,” Barrett said.

“Key indicators of our tailored approach's success include students attending Tombolo more in the first three weeks of a term than they have in a whole year at their previous school.”

Milestones such as active class participation and the emotional responses of parents witnessing their children flourish are evidence of our positive impact, she added.

“The profound and lasting changes in our twice-exceptional students' lives are the ultimate measure of success at Tombolo Academy.”

Expanding horizons

Barrett said Tombolo Academy is receiving inquiries from across Australia and the UK about student enrolments on its waiting list.

“The growing interest in our approach is inspiring, and we would love to establish additional schools tailored to neurodiverse students throughout Australia,” she said.

“At Tombolo Academy, we firmly believe that the more educators are equipped to understand and support 2e students, the more significant the positive impact on our society.”

Barrett said the school is eager to collaborate and share its best practices at educational conferences.

“Being invited to these events presents a unique opportunity for us to showcase our innovative methods and contribute to upskilling educators nationwide,” she said.

“The more we empower teachers with the knowledge and tools to nurture 2e students effectively, the better we can enhance student outcomes and, ultimately, enrich our society through the untapped potential of these extraordinary individuals.”