It was a catered evening reception at the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., but this event didn’t signal an exhibit opening for a famous painter. The guests of honor were 30 outstanding, though generally unheralded, elementary and high school art teachers from across the country flown to Washington to receive a personalized award and a print signed by artist James Rosenquist. The hostess of the reception and patron of these art educators was Sally Smith, founder and director of the Lab School of Washington and nationally renowned champion of arts education for learning disabled children. You couldn’t miss her—blond, ebullient and bejeweled with polka-dot nail polish, a brightly colored dress and scarf, in the middle of things with a ready “Hello” and broad smile. Bringing the teachers to Washington was her way of recognizing them for their creative work in enriching the lives of children through arts in the classroom. Too often to our detriment, arts instruction is so marginalized that when education budget cuts are considered, beleaguered art teachers are often among the first to get pink slips.
We lost Sally a year ago on December 1, 2007, but her legacy as a champion for arts education lives on. That legacy began in 1967 when her youngest son, Gary, a bright and creative child, began acting out in school out of frustration over his inability to read or do math. When she learned that he had a severe learning disability, the only options school officials offered were to put him with retarded or disturbed children. Neither was acceptable, but Sally puzzled over where she could take her son. That’s when she decided to create her own school starting with Gary and three other students. This was a school that embraced the potential and intelligence of learning disabled children within an innovative curriculum built around the arts. She started by hiring artists as teachers because of their ability to think creatively.
Although she was trying something new, Sally wasn’t a novice in education or the arts. She graduated in 1950 from Bennington College where she studied modern dance with Martha Graham and was a student of prominent psychoanalyst Erich Fromm. A year after graduation, her first book, A Child’s Guide to the Parent’s Mind, was published based on her senior thesis. She earned a master’s degree in education from New York University in 1955.
One of the pillars of the Lab School approach is that if a child isn’t learning, it’s not his or her fault. Sally 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.” Individualized art-centered study plans, homework and class work are created for every student. Music, dance, story telling and woodworking are used as teaching tools. For example, one student was taught math through carpentry. Another child loved baseball but was having difficulty reading so all of his lessons were taken from the sports pages of the newspaper and rewritten at his reading level.
The Lab School developed the “academic club” method as a nontraditional way for students to explore history, social studies and geography through visual, hands-on, concrete activities. In the “Gods Club,” students dress in togas, take the identity of a Greek god and are taught by a fully costumed Cleopatra. Eleanor of Aquitaine instructs the Knights and Ladies Club, and the Renaissance Club is taught by Lorenzo de Medici.
In 1976, Sally became a professor in the School of Education at American University and headed the master’s degree program specializing in learning disabilities. The Lab School is the primary training site for most of the graduate students in the program. Sally authored ten books and the Lab School was the subject of four PBS-produced films in 2002 demonstrating her approaches to teacher training.
Every year, the Lab School’s fundraising awards dinner is hosted by a celebrity learning-disabled high achiever—Cher, Tom Cruise, Harry Belafonte, Charles Schwab, Magic Johnson, James Carville. The artist Robert Rauschenberg, who wasn’t diagnosed with dyslexia until he was an adult, was a big supporter of the school through his foundation. In meetings with these personalities, students who have felt that they were “dumber” than the other children, were afraid to read in class or were teased because they’re “slow” get a boost to their self-esteem when they learn that famous entertainers and athletes had similar challenges when they were children.
As a tribute to the school’s success, after four or five years, most students move on to mainstream schools—Sally’s ultimate goal for all of her students. Almost all graduate from high school and about 90 percent go on to college.
Over the years, the Lab School has grown to accommodate more than 300 day students ages 5 to 19. And it runs a tutoring program for another 250 children and adults, a summer camp, a night school and a testing service. A division of the school, the Baltimore Lab School, opened in Baltimore in 2000. Sally Smith, the warm enthusiastic educator is missed. But her legacy will endure.