You are here: American University School of Education Special Education Sally L. Smith and SOE

Special Education for Those with Learning Disabilities: The Story of Sally L. Smith at American University

Special Education students

The partnership between American University and The Lab School of Washington, and AU offering the master of arts in special education focusing on learning disabilities, began with Sally L. Smith. Smith founded The Lab School in 1967 to teach students like her son Gary, who had learning differences. The idea for the school began when Smith discovered that the elaborate, creative, hands-on birthday parties that she'd planned for her sons provided him with an environment where he could learn and remember academic material. What started as birthday parties soon became a teaching methodology as Smith realized that a multi-sensory approach to learning helped students with learning disabilities succeed. In 1975, Smith became an adjunct professor in SOE, and in 1976, she became the director of the master's program in special education: learning disabilities.

Today, AU’s School of Education carries on some of Smith’s work through the:

You may read more about Sally's life and work by reading her biography "Sally's Genius," her book "Power of the Arts," seeing the Sally L. Smith Papers housed at American University, or visiting the national International Dyslexia Assocation site.

The  Sally L. Smith Distinguished Lecture Series The Inaugural Lecture, Oct. 1, 2022

Attendees at the Sally L. Smith Distinguished Lecture.

The School of Education held the first inaugural Sally L. Smith Distinguished Lecture, in person at American University and via Zoom on October 1, 2022. The event featured an informative lecture titled "Dyslexia in the 21st Century: Science Bringing Hope to Children Who Are Dyslexic" given by preeminent dyslexia experts and award-winning co-authors of the book Overcoming Dyslexia, Sally E. Shaywitz, M.D. and Bennett A. Shaywitz, M.D.

Attendees at the Sally L. Smith Distinguished LectureThe event was hosted by SOE and the D.C. Capital Area Branch of the International Dyslexia Association and moderated by SOE Professor Sarah Belson, Ph.D. 

Sally E. Shaywitz, M.D. is the Audrey G. Ratner Professor in Learning Development at Yale University and with her husband Bennett, is the co-founder and co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity. Dr. Shaywitz is the author of over 350 scientific articles and chapters, and the book Overcoming Dyslexia, now in its second edition and in it, Dr. Shaywitz incorporates the latest breakthroughs in science, educational methods, technology, and a major step forward in legal actions that will lead to great accommodations in schools. Dr. Shaywitz has served on the Congressionally-mandated National Reading Panel and the Committee to Prevent Reading Difficulties in Young Children of the National Research Council and, by presidential appointment (President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama) on the National Board of the Institute for Education Sciences of the U.S. Department of Education. 

Bennett A. Shaywitz, M.D. is the Charles and Helen Schwab Professor in Dyslexia and Learning Development at Yale University. As a physician-scientist Dr. Shaywitz performs cutting-edge neuroscience research to advance the neuroscience of dyslexia. He is dedicated to ensuring that scientific progress in dyslexia is translated into policy and practice. Dr. Shaywitz’s work examines differences in brain connectivity between dyslexic and typical reading children, revealing that in dyslexia brain connectivity is disrupted to the word-form area, an area critical to reading fluency, and that connectivity is disrupted between reading and attention systems.

More photos from the event may be viewed here.

Sally Smith Lecture Attendees

A Tribute to Sally L. Smith


Watch this video montage about Sally L. Smith's work founding The Lab School in Washington, DC, for children with learning disabilities.

Remembering Sally L. Smith

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

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.

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

Alumni Support of Individuals with Disabilities

Erica Gillaspy

What was your academic/professional path to AU and beyond?
I always knew I wanted to pursue a career in working with individuals with disabilities. I started working at AU after graduating with my Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from The Catholic University of America. After researching the Master in Special Education: Learning Disabilities program, meeting with Sarah Irvine Belson, and visiting The Lab School, I knew this program would be a great fit for me and my goals. About a year into my program, I started working in the Academic Support and Access Center at AU as an Accommodations Coordinator for testing and notetaking.

Working in the ASAC while simultaneously pursuing my master's degree allowed me to draw connections between my coursework and the students I saw daily. It allowed me to work closely with professors and enhance their understanding of disability-related academic accommodations. After graduating with my master's in May 2017, I became the Assistant Director, Disability Support in the ASAC. In this role, I oversee the accommodations team and work directly with students requesting disability-related accommodations at AU. These accommodations include dining, housing, interpretive, notetaking, physical, temporary, and testing accommodations. I also serve as a disability access advisor for students with disabilities and those needing general academic support.

Have you worked on any specific research projects that you would like to highlight?
I have been researching and learning assistive technology for students with disabilities. When I am working with students, I often think about which assistive technology options they would benefit from the most. In the ASAC, we moved from peer notetaking accommodations to encouraging students to use notetaking technology, such as Sonoscent Audio Notetaker or Livescribe SmartPens. Through conversations with students, we determine which software  works best for them, and sometimes, depending on the course content, the answer is both! Notetaking technology helps students actively engage in their accommodations. Rather than receiving peer notes at the end of every class, students are given an opportunity to write, type, record, or a mix of the three. The technology allows students more control over how they want their notes organized and sets them up for future success when entering the workforce.

Amber Owens

What was your academic/professional path to AU and beyond?
Prior to attending AU, I received my undergraduate degree from THE Ohio State University, where I became a proud member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc. After graduation from OSU I graciously served as a City Year Corps member in Columbus, Ohio. I chose AU for its vast variety of education paths at the MA level. I was actually undecided between Elementary Education and Special Education days prior to starting my program. I felt, and now know, that AU's Special Education program was the correct path for my professional growth. The program provides instruction from extremely knowledgeable professors with vast experiences. Currently I am a Special Education teacher and project coordinator for a local high school. I am pleased to learning on a daily basis what makes a great classroom work as well as an educational institution.

Have you worked on any specific research projects that you would like to highlight?
One research project looked to better understand how information that is being tested is selected for standardized testing. I primarily looked at testing delivered to urban school districts such as district wide testing and testing the Special Education eligibility.