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The world of special education has lost one of its luminaries. Sally Smith founded the Lab School in Washington, D.C. She died this past weekend. Sally Smith started her school in 1967, the time when children with learning disabilities had nowhere to go. The Lab School influenced educators around the country. But Smith's career in education started with one of her own children.

NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON: If you want to know what the Lab School means to people, ask a parent, but be prepared for tears.

KATHY TENHULA: The gratitude that I feel in my heart.

ABRAMSON: Kathy Tenhula brought her daughter, Grace, to the Lab School at age 7 after she had experienced nothing but failure in traditional schools.

TENHULA: Children are not just remediated. Souls are truly nurtured here.

ABRAMSON: Tenhula sat 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, chair of the Lab School board of trustees, Smith encountered a brick wall.

ROBERT MATTHIAS: Particularly in the traditional educational environment back then, these were the unteachable. These were the unlearnable. And Sally said, no. No, they're not.

ABRAMSON: So Sally Smith single-handedly founded her own school. Neela Seldin, head of the primary school at Lab, says Smith returned to the themed birthday parties she'd thrown for her son.

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

ABRAMSON: 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.

MEGAN FINNIMORE: I remember knights and ladies. You know, you just learn about the Renaissance and all these 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, it was just fascinating to me.

ABRAMSON: The hole Sally Smith will leave behind will be that much bigger because of the size of her personality, a key piece of her success. Her staff describes her as colorful, forceful, convincing.

Unidentified Group: And not shy.

ABRAMSON: There is certainly agreement on that. Sally 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, served on national groups dedicated to learning disabilities, a field she helped create.

Unidentified Woman #1: Hi.

Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah.

ABRAMSON: In the front of the Lab School, there's a statue of a huge giraffe, a symbol of standing tall against the challenges these kids face. After students learned about Smith's passing, they draped that giraffe in colorful streamers yesterday. They blew in a stiff wind, stirring memories of the flamboyant scarves Sally Smith sported.

Art teacher Mark Jarvis was adding his own sunburst decoration.

MARK JARVIS: 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. She taught us how to teach these kids. And she was really something.

ABRAMSON: Really something. Special educator Sally Smith died Saturday. She was 78.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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