Special-Education Innovator Sally Smith Dies

Sally Smith is seen in September 2006 at a celebration for the launch of the school's 40th year.

Sally Smith, founder of The Lab School, is seen in September 2006 at a celebration for the launch of the school's 40th year. Smith died Saturday at the age of 78. Courtesy The Lab School hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy The Lab School
A teacher hangs a scarf honoring educator Sally Smith on a statue outside the school she founded.

Art teacher Mark Jarvis hangs a decoration in honor of educator Sally Smith on a statue outside the Lab School, which Smith founded in Washington, D.C. Smith, who was known for wearing brightly colored scarves, died Saturday. The giraffe statue is a reminder to learning-disabled students to stand tall. Larry Abramson, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Larry Abramson, NPR
Students' crafts adorn educator Sally Smith's office at the Lab School.

Students' crafts adorn Sally Smith's office at the Lab School. Smith started the school in the 1960s, employing arts-based methods that had helped her son with his learning problems. Larry Abramson, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Larry Abramson, NPR

The world of special education has lost one of its leading lights. Sally Smith, founder of the Lab School in Washington, D.C., died this past weekend. She was 78.

Smith started her school in 1967, a time when children with learning disabilities had nowhere to go. Smith created a school that influenced educators around the country. But her career in education started with one of her own children.

'Souls Are Truly Nurtured'

If you want to know what "Lab School" means, ask a parent — but be prepared for tears.

"The gratitude that I feel in my heart," said Kathy Tenhula. She brought her daughter Grace to the Lab School at age 7, after she had experienced nothing but failure in traditional schools.

"Children are not just remediated; souls are truly nurtured here," Tenhula said, sitting in Sally Smith's cluttered office, surrounded by the artwork that is at the core of the Lab School approach to learning.

In the 1960s, Smith sought help for her own son, Gary. According to Robert Matthias, chairman of the school's board of trustees, Smith encountered a brick wall.

"Particularly in the traditional educational environment back then, these were the unteachable, these were the unlearnable. And Sally said, 'No, no! They're not!'" Matthias said.

Learning Through Art, Drama, Activity

Smith single-handedly founded her own school.

Neela Seldin, head of the primary school at Lab, says Smith built on the themed birthday parties she had thrown for her son.

"She had found that through art and through drama, through activity, her child could learn a tremendous amount of information, both academic and content-related," Seldin said.

Those parties became the basis for Lab's famous clubs — students dress up and become the characters they study, using graphic arts and drama to leap past the disabilities that blocked them in traditional schools.

Megan Finnimore just graduated from film school after eight years at Lab.

"I remember knights and ladies," she said. "You learn about the Renaissance and all sorts of fascinating things that you would never know about. And the fact that you got to actually pretend to live in that time and experience the same things that they would have experienced is just fascinating to me."

Building Special Education

The hole Smith leaves behind is that much bigger because of the size of her personality, a key piece of her success. Her staff describe her as colorful, forceful, convincing — "and not shy," they all chime in at once.

Smith spent her last years trying to spread the Lab School model to other cities — Baltimore, Philadelphia. She taught special ed at American University, wrote books on special ed and served with national groups dedicated to learning disabilities, a field she helped create.

Standing Tall

There is a large statue of a giraffe in front of the Washington, D.C., school. It's a symbol of standing tall against the challenges these kids face. After students learned about Smith's passing, they draped the giraffe in colorful streamers that blew in a stiff wind Sunday, stirring memories of the flamboyant scarves Smith sported.

Art teacher Mark Jarvis added his own sunburst decoration.

"Her legacy is not just the kids and what she's brought to the world about learning disabilities; it's the staff that have been with her for years," Jarvis said. "She taught us how to teach these kids. She was really something."

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