The Teacher at the Head of the Class

By Ellen Edwards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 4, 2007

At first glance you might have thought you had come upon some improbable tropical bird, full of color and feathers, dressed in layers of patterns on patterns, a pile of rolling blond curls on her head.

This, of course, is what captivated children when they first looked at Sally Smith, the founder and director of the Lab School of Washington, one of the nation's premier places for students with learning disabilities. She didn't look like any other adult in their experience, and they discovered she didn't think like any other head of school, either.

Sally Smith, who died Saturday from complications of myeloma at 78, looked right back at those young faces and saw potential, intelligence, the charm and grace of childhood.

Where other schools saw kids who didn't pay attention, she saw kids who viewed the world in creative ways. Where other schools saw frustration and anger, she saw kids desperate to learn, and she created a school for them. She gave them respect, she gave them hope and she gave them the tools to succeed.

Her own son's difficulties with learning caused her to look for ways to teach him, and from the beginning, even before she became a nationally known educator, she placed the responsibility directly on adults in charge. In the school handbook, Smith wrote, "our philosophy is based on the belief that a child's failure to learn means that the teaching staff has not yet found a way to help him. It is up to the adults to seek out the routes by which each child learns, to discover his strengths and interests and to experiment until effective techniques are found."

Anyone who ever met Sally has a story to tell. She was larger than life: in her size and presence, in her ambitions, in her throaty voice advocating her ideas. She cultivated artists, and often had them to her Cleveland Park home. She cultivated support for the Lab School, from wealthy and powerful potential donors to parents who could give only their time. Her fundraising gala highlighted learning-disabled achievers, who over the years have included Charles Schwab, Magic Johnson, Robert Rauschenberg, Cher and James Carville. In a closed-door session, the students would face those big names and ask blunt and painful questions: "Did you feel stupid compared with your siblings?" "Were your parents embarrassed by you?" "How did you feel when you were asked to read out loud in class?"

The core of all of Smith's techniques, in her 10 books and the PBS series about her work, is empathy.

I first heard her name a decade ago from a reading specialist in the Midwest when I was beginning to think I might have a dyslexic child.

"You're near Sally Smith's school, aren't you?" she asked me. "That's the place." She said it with such confidence and certainty that I knew I had better figure out who Sally Smith was.

I met Sally first as a reporter, sitting in her office and listening to her talk about students the Lab School has taught. I remember in particular the story of the young boy who was good at numbers but not good at reading. The Lab faculty, which individualizes homework, a study plan, classwork, everything, for every student, put him in charge of the school store. He loved selling things. They found a way to catch his interest and motivate him to learn to read. He grew up and out of Lab, and, Smith boasted, had become a successful businessman.

She talked about another student who learned kinesthetically, through movement. The teachers spread patterns out on the floor for him to learn math, a map for him to learn geography, and he danced his way through learning.

She told me how often tears had been shed in that office, which was crowded with art from students and professionals, and which had an open door policy so vigorously enforced that most people didn't think she even had a door. Parents came to her desperate to find a school where their child would be accepted and challenged, where they could learn and not be warehoused until they dropped out. They brought with them horror stories from other schools that had treated their kids as if they were stupid, made them feel terrible about themselves and chucked them in the corner as a lost cause.

After a few months at Lab, they often wept again, with gratitude, because the school meant no more endless rounds of tutors and therapists. It meant free time after school for exhausted children who worked hard every minute of the school day. It meant an end to the isolation of parenting a child who learned differently, because the school community embraced the potential of these children.

Five years ago I met Sally again, but this time as the parent of a prospective student. It was clear my son had the family dyslexia gene, and reading was going to be a struggle. He enrolled for third grade, where 12 students in his class had four educators.

His lead teacher that year spent a long time figuring out how to get him interested in reading.

Of course he was interested, but it was so hard and frustrating for him that he pushed it away.

Finally, she realized his interest in baseball might do it. Every day, his homework consisted of reading lessons she had taken from news stories about baseball and had rewritten at his reading level. Every day she created a page of four or five questions for him to answer from his reading. Little by little, his reading got better. He was studying without realizing it. He thought he was just having fun.

This learning environment was Sally Smith's creation, her gift to the world of education. She saw how arts could teach all kinds of things, and she shaped the Lab School around the arts. She hired artists as teachers because she knew they would think creatively. They taught sophisticated content without reading.

In his first year there, the mythologies of ancient times were taught through what was called Gods Club. The students were taught by Cleopatra, complete with headdress. The students dressed in togas. Each took the identity of a Greek god. To enter the classroom, they used passwords that changed every day, such as "Corinthian," which taught them the name of a column's capital. A painted Nile River ran through the middle of the classroom just as the real Nile runs through Egypt.

When the winter break came, and we took our son to the Egyptian galleries at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, he read the hieroglyphics to us while we listened slack-jawed.

This was her famous Academic Club method, one of the many she shared as professor in charge of American University's masters program for special education. Our son went on to Knights and Ladies Club, taught by Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Renaissance Club taught by Lorenzo de Medici. He jousted and learned about Holy Wars, made cheese and tasted ravioli, painted a fresco and took on the persona of Dante.

He learned, and after four years he moved on to a mainstream school, which was Smith's ultimate goal for all her students.

A couple of months ago, my son was visiting the school and saw Smith. She was in a wheelchair, dressed in her usual eye-popping splendor. She took his hand and asked him how he liked his new school.

She really wanted to know the answer, and she really listened when he gave it. That was Sally Smith's genius.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company