Arete Academy's Leah Brzezinski is Changing Education

photo by jamey guy

Leah Brzezinski is the founder and program coordinator at Arete Academy in Hopkins, a private school with 22 enrolled K-8 students considered 2e learners, or twice exceptional—meaning they are classified as both gifted and having a learning disability such as dyslexia, auditory processing disorder, or types of ADHD or dysgraphia. Using an innovative curriculum and specialized technology, and now entering its second year, the school is the only one of its kind in the Midwest and aims to meet the needs of students who have historically underperformed academically in conventional settings.

“I was a special-education teacher for students with autism, then I got a master’s degree in speech and language pathology, then a doctorate in child and youth studies and leadership with a focus in special education. After time as a Special Ed administrator in south Florida, I worked in Edina Public Schools as an autism specialist, then was recruited to help develop and coordinate the U of M’s autism clinic.”

“We’ve had five children from Korea join our family through adoption, and two are 2e learners. My son got through elementary school with some struggles but I knew his needs wouldn’t be met in middle school, with the academic, emotional, and social challenges to come.”

“I felt that these students need a place to belong. They don’t quite fit in with the gifted students, and not quite with the special education or the regular education population. So this is a place for them to fit in, to go to school like every other student. They need a place to belong.”

“There are only four or five in the nation like us, including the Lang School in New York and Bridges in L.A. … I think we’re on the forefront of a new field, a new terminology, all across the United States and not just in Minnesota. We’re in the very beginning stages of identifying these children and finding ways to educate them.”

“These kids’ learning disabilities are often unrecognized, because their intellectual abilities will often mask their learning disabilities in writing, reading, or math. If you see a student underperforming, it can seem they’re being lazy, or unmotivated, or checked-out, but it could be an unrecognized learning disability.”

“They’re masters at avoidance—getting by, and compensating for their weaknesses. So they go unnoticed all the time. They often have high test scores in some areas that average out to make them average learners until, for example, you put the child into a middle-school writing class and they totally bomb it. Then they feel emotionally and socially defeated. They feel they aren’t smart, they aren’t competent—which can filter into all other aspects of their lives. … They have the perfectionism and anxiety of gifted children mixed with the needs of a person with a learning disability.”

“We would really like to be a lab school, where educators can come from across the country to see what we’ve learned—not how to “do it,” because almost every 2e is such a unique learner. I don’t see myself as an expert on this, but my background has prepared me, as well as my experience as a parent. There are a lot of bright and wise educators out there who can say, I see this in this child, but financially how could we make it fly? … In a lot of places, these [2e] kids are still flying under the radar.”

Quinton Skinner is a writer and editor based in the Twin Cities. A former senior editor of Minnesota Monthly, he held the same post at Twin Cities METRO and 
has written for major national and local publications. He is the co-founder of Logosphere Storysmiths and author of several novels, including his latest, Odd One Out.