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Lab School of Washington Partnership

Special Education students

The partnership between American University and The Lab School of Washington began in 1975 when Sally L. Smith became an adjunct professor. Eight years prior, Smith founded The Lab School to teach students like her son Gary, who had learning differences. The idea for the school began when Smith discovered that the elaborate, creative, hands-on birthday parties that she'd planned for her sons provided Gary with an environment where he could learn and remember academic material. What started as birthday parties soon became a teaching methodology as Smith realized that a multi-sensory approach to learning was helping troubled students to succeed.

In 1976, Smith became the director of the master's program in special education: learning disabilities, and in the thirty-plus years since then, hundreds of graduate students have learned that arts and academics are very closely related. They have each spent an academic year working in The Lab School, wherein they are able to experience what Smith's philosophy embodied: that all students can learn, and that the arts provide an invaluable vehicle for organizing the learning process for students with learning disabilities. Furthermore, through the coursework, graduate students are able to experience the philosophy of American University of turning ideas into action, and action into service. We strive to make sure our graduates leave AU with a thorough understanding of these fundamental principles and with the ability to implement them when working with diverse learners. With Smith's passing in December of 2007, we are all the more committed to keeping her spirit alive as we plan for continued academic and teaching excellence.

Institute for Innovation & Education

Through the School of Education's Institute for Innovation & Education, we also offer partnerships and projects with

In Remembrance of Sally Smith, Lab School Founder

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.

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Erica Gillaspy

What was your academic/professional path to AU and beyond?
I always knew I wanted to pursue a career in working with individuals with disabilities but unsure of in what capacity. My senior year of college, I came across a research article outlining a study that resonated deeply with my interests and personality. This study was designed to measure "to what extent do adolescents' perceptions of caring teachers predict efforts to achieve positive social and academic outcomes in school?" Results found that "perceived caring from teachers was related significantly and positively to student's pursuit of prosocial and social responsibility goals and to student's academic efforts" (Wentzel, 1997). Additionally, findings also indicated that "student are more likely to engage in classroom activities if they feel supported and valued" (Wentzel 1997).

I started working at American University (AU) shortly after graduating with my Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from The Catholic University of America. After researching the Master in Special Education: Learning Disabilities program, meeting with Sarah Irvine Belson, and visiting The Lab School, I knew this program would be a great fit for me and my goals. About a year into my program, I started working in the Academic Support and Access Center at AU as an Accommodations Coordinator for testing and notetaking. Working in the ASAC while simultaneously pursuing my master's degree allowed me to draw connections between my coursework and the students I saw daily. This position also allowed me to work closely with professors and enhance their understanding of disability-related academic accommodations. Shortly after graduating with my master's in May 2017, I moved into the position of Assistant Director, Disability Support in the ASAC. In this role, I oversee the accommodations team and work directly with students requesting disability-related accommodations at AU. These accommodations include dining, housing, interpretive, notetaking, physical, temporary and testing accommodations. I also serve as a disability access advisor for students with disabilities and those needing general academic support.

Have you worked on any specific research projects that you would like to highlight?
I have been researching and learning assistive technology for students with disabilities. When I am working with students, I often think about which assistive technology options they would benefit from the most. In the ASAC, we recently moved from peer notetaking accommodations to encouraging students to use notetaking technology, such as Sonoscent Audio Notetaker or Livescribe SmartPens. Through conversations with students, we are able to determine which software would work best for them, and sometimes, depending on the course content, the answer is both! Notetaking technology helps students actively engage in their accommodations. Rather than receiving peer notes at the end of every class, students are given an opportunity to write, type, record, or a mix of the three. The technology allows students more control over how they want their notes organized and sets them up for future success when entering the workforce.

Amber Owens

Amber Owens

What was your academic/professional path to AU and beyond?
Prior to attending AU, I received my undergraduate degree from THE Ohio State University, where I became a proud member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. After graduation from OSU I graciously served as a City Year Corps member in Columbus, Ohio. I chose AU for its vast variety of education paths at the MA level. I was actually undecided between Elementary Education and Special Education days prior to starting my program. I felt, and now know, that AU's Special Education program was the correct path for my professional growth. The program provides instruction from extremely knowledgeable professors with vast experiences. Currently I am a Special Education teacher and project coordinator for a local high school. I am pleased to learning on a daily basis what makes a great classroom work as well as an educational institution.

Have you worked on any specific research projects that you would like to highlight?
One research project looked to better understand how information that is being tested is selected for standardized testing. I primarily looked at testing delivered to urban school districts such as district wide testing and testing the Special Education eligibility.