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Special Education |  Tribute To Sally L. Smith

Sally L. Smith, Founder, The Lab School of Washington
Professor Sally L. Smith (1929-2007)
Director, MA in Special Education: Learning Disabilities and Founder / Director, The Lab School of Washington

It is with profound sadness that we share with you the passing of Professor Sally L. Smith on December 1, 2007. Sally was a visionary in her field and worked tirelessly for all students with learning disabilities especially those at her own Lab School of Washington and Baltimore Lab. Moreover, she was dedicated to shaping the futures of new teachers who could work expertly with learning disabled children as the Director of the Special Education program at American University. She was a leader and an inspiration to everyone she met. This is a tremendous loss for all of us.

Tributes to Sally L. Smith

The American University Library houses the Sally L. Smith Papers.

The series documents Sally L. Smith’s role as founder and teacher at The Lab School of Washington through correspondence, programs, directories, curricular materials, publications, notes, speeches, photographs, policies.

Critical Literacy in Practice: Tribute to Sally Smith Podcast, by Vivian Vasquez, December 4, 2007

NPR All Things Considered Rememberances: Special-Education Innovator Sally Smith Dies, by Larry Abramson, December 4, 2007

Lab School Founder Passes: Sally Smith Founded Schools To Teach Those With Learning Disabilities, December 4, 2007 on

Washington Post Obituary: Sally Smith, 78; Lab School Founder, by Joe Holley, December 4, 2007; Page B07

Washington Post Appreciation Article: A Teacher at the Head of the Class, by Ellen Edwards, December 4, 2007; Page C01

About Sally L. Smith

Professor Sally L. Smith’s many successes underscore the idea that teacher training in universities and in “real-world” schools are strengthened greatly through interaction with one another and through their shared commitment to improve the lives of learners of all ages. Without Smith, the nationally recognized Lab School of Washington would not exist; without her, AU’s master’s degree in special education focusing on learning disabilities would be only a desired but not realized goal of the university. Under Smith’s direction, however, both the Lab School and AU have created a model of innovation and educational achievement that is respected, admired, and even envied by other institutions.

The higher education community recognizes her groundbreaking curriculum design, which integrates theory and practice not in separate courses or during separate semesters but every day in every activity. Students working with Smith reap the benefit of her experience in designing programs of study. All collaborate with her to design their own programs, which build on what they already know and challenge them to stretch in new directions. Few master’s programs like this exist, where students are guided so closely both in their academic work and in their practica.

Smith has also been recognized within the world of special education for her innovative thinking and inspired teaching, as well for her tireless efforts to create a school that motivates and nurtures its students and for her leadership for 40 years at a school that she built from the bottom up (and 30 years at American University). Her gift to both institutions she serves has been to treat each one equally and to reinforce regularly the fundamental premise that each institution is better as a result of the collaboration. That model has enabled both the Lab School and AU to thrive in this area and to foster other collaborations. In her work at AU, she brings both her considerable real-world experience and her philosophy of education, which is based on her research, teaching, and observations of how learning actually occurs.

Smith founded and designed the Lab School of Washington in 1967 for intelligent children and adults with learning disabilities. With 330 day school students, 70 adult night school students, and thousands of others who come for clinical services, it is the prime training site for students in the master’s program in special education. Baltimore Lab, a division of the Lab School of Washington, opened in 2000 and now has 135 students in grades 1–12. In Philadelphia, the Academy in Manayunk (in conjunction with the Lab School of Washington) opened in September 2006. There as well, the arts-based methodology developed by Smith will be emphasized together with rigorous, classical education and intensive remediation. All staff will be trained at the Lab School.

Since 1976 Smith has been a member of AU’s faculty, in charge of the master’s in special education program focusing on learning disabilities. On May 10, 2006, the Today show interviewed her at the Lab School, chronicling its development from inception to the present. Smith is the author of ten books about learning disabilities. Her latest book, Live It. Learn It. The Academic Club Methodology for Students with Learning Disabilities and ADHD, was published in 2005.

Professional Biography

Sally Smith was the Founder and Executive Director of The Lab School of Washington®, a full-time special education, rigorous academic program for students of average to above average intelligence with moderate to severe learning disabilities in grades K-12. Professor Smith taught EDU-545 Overview of All Exceptionalities: The Arts in Special Education, EDU-607 Research Seminar in Special Education, EDU-645 Learning Disabilities I, EDU-646 Learning Disabilities II, EDU-792 In-Service Training Project.

The Lab School’s approach to teaching is utilizing all of the art forms to teach specific academic skills and content. She designed the Academic Club Methodology, a dramatic framework for teaching history, geography, literature, and civics while building huge storehouses of knowledge, vocabulary, and language fluency, and critical thinking. Over 92% of Lab School students go on to college. The Academic Club Teaching Service (ACTS) was established in 2005 to help other schools use the Academic Club Methodology. Now there is a cadre of her teachers who educate others to do this in Oklahoma, Wyoming and other states.

Professor Smith replicated The Lab School by creating Baltimore Lab: a division of The Lab School of Washington which opened in September 2000. The first graduating class will be in 2008; currently there are 135 students, grades 1-11 in this arts-based scholastic program for children with learning disabilities and ADHD. The Academy in Manayunk: in conjunction with The Lab School of Washington, opened in September 2006. Professor Smith helped create the school, taught them her methodology, hired their staff, trained them, and is supervising them now. Right now she is negotiating with parents who want to create a Delaware Lab based on her methodology. The Lab School has numerous other offers to replicate across the nation and abroad.

Professor Smith collaborated with PBS in producing four films in January 2002, demonstrating the teacher training techniques Sally Smith originated and uses at American University and at The Lab School. They are entitled “‘Teach Me Different’ with Sally Smith.” These films won the TELLY AWARD for first place in the Education category in 2002. In 2003, the films won the SILVER INTERNATIONAL CINDY (Cinema in Industry) AWARD - from the International Association of Audio Visual Communicators.

Professor Smith has been a keynote speaker at numerous conferences, workshops, and lectures nationally and internationally on the field of learning disabilities and on the role of the Arts in teaching children with learning disabilities. She is an annual speaker at the Learning Disabilities Association of America International Conference. For twelve years, she served on the LDA Professional Advisory Board (PAB) and for six years on The National Center for Learning Disabilities PAB. In April 2001, American University gave her a medal for twenty-five years of outstanding service. In February 1993, Professor Smith received the LDA Award from the Learning Disabilities Association of America, the highest honor given in her field, in recognition and appreciation of outstanding leadership in the field of learning disabilities.

Recent honors include a tribute by Child Magazine as “Trailblazer for the Learning Disabled”, a feature on The Today Show in May 2006, being chosen as the “Mentor of the Month” by in June 2003. Recent articles about Professor Smith have appeared in American, Education Update, Washington’s Finest Magazine, Teacher Magazine, and the Baltimore Sun. Professor Smith has appeared on numerous radio and television programs, most recently on the Kojo Nnamdi Show.