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Remembering Sally L. Smith

October 1, 2021

The Lab School Founder Sally L. Smith (1929-2007)

Sally Smith

In 1975, Smith became an adjunct professor, and in 1976, she became the director of the master’s program in special education: learning disabilities. In the years since then, hundreds of graduate students have learned that arts and academics are closely related. Each graduate has spent an academic year working in The Lab School, where they 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 embody the philosophy at American University of changing ideas into action, and action into service. At AU, we strive to make sure graduates have a thorough understanding of these fundamental principles, and can implement them when working with diverse learners. Though Smith passed in 2007, we are committed to keeping her spirit alive as we continue to innovate for academic and teaching excellence.

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 goal. Under Smith’s direction, 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 who worked with Smith reaped the benefit of her experience in designing programs of study. Students collaborated with her to design their own programs, which build on what they already knew 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.

More About Sally Smith

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.

Related Links

A Tribute to Sally L. Smith