Professor Sally L. Smith:
The Lab School of Washington, DC
In response to a question about why she founded and became director of The Lab School of Washington D.C. 40 years ago, Professor Sally L. Smith, a nationally recognized leader in the field of learning disabilities (LD), doesn’t hesitate: one of her sons. It became clear to her early on that he had difficulty processing information, and it also became clear to her that the available tutoring did little to help. Today, she also doesn’t hesitate to add, he has his own entrepreneurial business, and though he may need an assist with financial matters, he’s doing well. As she has written many times—five books, hundreds of articles, including a section on LD for the 1985 Medical and Health Annual of the Encyclopedia Britannia—in the late sixties, she felt there were no adequate services for intelligent children with learning disabilities—the term wasn’t even around, then. Enter the energetic focused Sally Smith, who had majored in dance and then went on to study psychology and cultural anthropology, earning along the way an extraordinary number of awards and becoming a professor in the graduate School of Education at American University, in charge of the Master’s Program in Special Education: Learning Disabilities. The Lab School methodology has already been replicated in Baltimore and is being adopted by a school in Philadelphia.
Known for, among other innovative programs and techniques, the Academic Club Method, Prof. Smith, a soft-spoken woman who takes pride in attracting celebrities to talk about their own LD problems, remains unflagging in her efforts to educate the public about how much has been and can be done to bolster the self-esteem of LD students, K-H.S. (92 percent go on for higher education) and to train teachers. Although she began with Primary Programs for elementary schools, she moved 17 years later to address the needs of adults. The challenges, of course. The older LD population was a real “eye opener” for her, she recalls. Many adults had been in other programs, other schools, and felt they had failed. She analyzed some basics. Though it took “great courage” for the LD adults to call to ask for help, she noted that if the voice at the other end didn’t say the right thing, quickly, the callers would hang up. She also saw that even when they did follow, they often didn’t show up or showed up late. She appreciated their organizational problems—and moved to address them, creatively, compassionately. When someone says, “I’ll meet you around the corner in 15 minutes,” that remark means little to someone with LD. What’s time, what’s space? She got them to call in, in stages, as they readied themselves for an appointment.
At the heart of Sally Smith’s Academic Club Method—so named because it addresses all subject disciplines—history, science, humanities—but does so in a way designed to be fun and to promote a sense of belonging—is application of the arts, particularly the visual arts. Robert Rauschenberg, who has talked at the Lab School about his own LD, became a strong supporter of the school by way of The Rauschenberg Foundation, and this year, his son Chris will be coming to speak to the children at a teachers’ May weekend workshop gathering, which will be filmed for The Today Show to air on May 12. So many LD students are imaginative, creative, responsive to the arts, she notes, though they may appear passive to the unprofessional eye. It is no accident that many graduates go on to careers in graphics, fashion, the arts, proving that difficulties in sequencing, organizing, have been adequately met. A second Ph.D. is on the way, she announces with pride.
The method, the Sally Smith Method, it could be called, comes up with incredibly imaginative ways to get children to use all their senses in learning to remember and to process what they learn and to engage in problem solving. Some classrooms are themed, but others use the arts to study the disciplines. In a 4th grade class, for example, “Lorenzo di Medici” leads activities, and costumed children have to devise and recall passwords to get into certain worlds. In later grades, they open restaurants, including dealing with business matters, get to try out careers, and design booklets on the arts. She would, ideally, have the public better appreciate how so many LD children and adults can make solid contributions to society, and teachers better understand what it’s like to have a learning disability. To that end she has instituted training sessions that place teachers in situations where they will have difficulty learning something.#