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Sally Smith, 78; Lab School Founder

Sally Smith started the Lab School in 1967 to meet the needs of a learning-disabled son and taught her methodology at workshops around the world.
Sally Smith started the Lab School in 1967 to meet the needs of a learning-disabled son and taught her methodology at workshops around the world. (By Stephanie K. Kuykendal For The Washington Post)

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By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Sally L. Smith, 78, founder of the Lab School in Washington, a school widely known for its innovative curriculum and its uncommon success in unlocking the mysteries of learning for those who learn differently from others, died Dec. 1 of complications of myeloma at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

Mrs. Smith, a longtime resident of the District, started the school in 1967 when her youngest son, Gary, despite being bright and creative, could neither read nor understand simple math. As a first-grader at Beauvoir elementary school, Gary, in his frustration, began to act up at school, and Mrs. Smith and her husband discovered that he was severely learning disabled.

"I was told we either had to put him with the retarded kids, though he wasn't retarded, or with the disturbed kids, though he wasn't disturbed. The question was, where was the school that could take him?" she said in The Washington Post in 2000.

Relying on her observations and intuition, as well as her graduate school work in education, she came to understand that her son learned by acting things out and by telling stories rather than by absorbing lectures. She set out to create a school that relied on that insight.

"She did not intend to be in the school administration business," said another of her sons, Randall Smith. "She was just a concerned mother."

Mrs. Smith began with Gary and three other students in an annex of the Kingsbury Diagnostic Center, an education and testing program that had helped the Smiths determine the scope of their son's learning difficulties. She relied on artist friends as her teachers, enlisted other friends to raise or donate money and dreamed up the school's innovative curriculum in a few hours.

"She believed in people who were creative," said Randall Smith. "Her students would learn through dance, music, woodworking. They'd learn math by doing carpentry."

She also developed the "academic club" method, a nontraditional way for students to explore history, geography, civics and other subjects by relying on visual, hands-on, concrete activities. For example, Lab School students might experience the Italian Renaissance by becoming Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, copying their masterpieces and creating their own works of art.

In 1983, the rapidly growing Lab School moved into the former Florence Crittenden Home for Unwed Mothers on Reservoir Road NW, on a scenic hill above the Georgetown Reservoir.

Mrs. Smith also came up with a fundraising concept that proved successful. Since 1984, the school has hosted an annual dinner that features awards to famous people who happen to have learning disabilities. Honorees have included Cher, Tom Cruise and Harry Belafonte.

Randall Smith noted that students' self-esteem invariably improved when hearing stories from gala honorees such as Bruce Jenner, a former Olympic decathlete, who told them that he hated school and that children teased him because he couldn't read, or artist Robert Rauschenberg, who exclaimed, "Thank God I was different!"

Mrs. Smith also was unique. In both her life and her teaching, she favored vibrant colors, intensity and emotion. Her trademark fashion statements included polka-dot nail polish, eccentric jewelry and brightly colored dresses and scarves.

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