Special Education

Stepping Out of the Mainstream

By Stacy Weiner — October 01, 2002 26 min read
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Many argue that the best place for a student with a learning disability is a typical classroom.

“Dante’s Divine Comedy,” breathes one kid, whispering today’s secret password. “Dante’s Divine Comedy,” recites the next student, and the next—down a line of 10- and 11-year-olds. Some need prodding from their teacher, but all eventually win entrance to the Renaissance Academic Club. Once inside the room, they settle into high-backed chairs that have been spray-painted gold. Hanging above them is a trellis festooned with plastic grapes. The walls are adorned with “works” by the artists they’re pretending to be—Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Lorenzo Ghiberti, among them.

Outside, it may be a sunny May morning in 21st-century Washington, D.C., but here, in this classroom, it’s 15th-century Italy. The kids don their red artists'-guild caps as their patron, Lorenzo de’ Medici (teacher Noel Bicknell, in a purple-and-gold cape), takes his position near the light switch. In unison, the artists recite the mantra they’ve repeated every day for nearly a year now. “From the darkness of the Middle Ages,” they enthuse, “comes the light of the Renaissance to bring in the modern world.” Then—click—the light comes on.

In classrooms throughout the Lab School of Washington, students are immersed in various historical periods. Some fiddle with stones under the tutelage of a teacher wearing a Flinstonesque smock, while others, playing the role of robber baron, plot Machiavellian business deals. The academic clubs were created by Sally Smith, who, as founder and director of the K-12 school, believes that fun is the key to good teaching. But education is also serious business. All 310 students at the Lab School suffer from moderate to severe learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, and in most cases they struggled terribly to get by in public schools.

Many years ago, however, Smith discovered that if you provide LD kids with tools like passwords and rituals, they focus better. If students who are terrified of making mistakes are permitted to role-play, they’ll take more risks. And with the help of hands-on activities—such as cooking Italian food or feeling a boot to appreciate Italy’s shape—they’ll more than make up for their shortcomings.

“The bottom line is they’re concrete learners, which means they have to do it, see it, touch it, smell it, taste it to learn it,” Smith explains. “Too often we try preaching and lecturing to them. We do too much talking. We need to do more doing.”

That’s why, today, the Renaissance Academic Club is working on “pocket Infernos,” models that replicate the many levels of hell in Dante’s epic work. In empty paint boxes, they fashion tiny clay representations of each sin, such as a pizza for gluttony. They work diligently, occasionally interrupting the assignment with questions such as, “Leonardo, can you pass the clay?” and “Lorenzo, what’s ‘lustfulness’ mean?” (Answer: “Out-of-control passions.”)

“Lorenzo” is pleased with how the lesson’s going. “This harnesses the natural play and curiosity that kids have,” says Bicknell, adding, with a hint of pride: “Look, no one’s spacing out. This population’s very susceptible to that.”

As “Lorenzo,” Noel Bicknell oversees a Renaissance get- together.
—David Kidd

The LD “population” is the subject of much attention and controversy. In the past decade, the number of kids diagnosed with a learning disability has jumped nearly 50 percent, to roughly 2.8 million. And the issues surrounding these kids—how and where to educate them, for instance—are being hotly debated as Congress continues the process, begun earlier this year, of reauthorizing the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The 27-year-old law, which guarantees disabled students a “free and appropriate education,” is reauthorized every few years so that federal legislators can decide whether or not to continue the legal mandate and under what terms. What’s “appropriate,” however, is up for grabs, with parents, researchers, and educators arguing over the best ways to serve LD kids.

For many, the Lab School—a private institution that serves as an alternative to mainstream classrooms—provides answers. Its students, 90 percent of whom go on to college, rave about their education. And teachers, some of whom have worked at the school for decades, appreciate the freedom to explore creativity in classrooms. Numerous institutions, from the National Center for Learning Disabilities to the U.S. Department of Education, have praised and endorsed the 35-year-old school as well.

Why? According to Smith, the school’s success has a lot to do with its blend of arts and multi-sensory learning. “These elements work with all children; they don’t have to be learning-disabled,” she notes. “With our kids, though, it’s a lifeline to success.”

At the Lab School, even classes that look typical often aren’t. Take phys ed. It’s late morning, and some of the kids from the Renaissance Club have joined other 10- and 11-year-olds in a game of Juddball, a customized version of Capture the Flag named after gym teacher Judd Grosshans. Because LD kids are developmentally immature in many ways, they tend to have trouble working with others. So this game, in which the goal is to steal the other team’s ball, demands a cooperative effort. “Kids with LD tend to be egocentric, and [Juddball] requires them to look outward,” explains Grosshans, as 11 boys thunder across the gym floor.

Ten minutes later, he yells “Freeze!” and the action stops. “Captains, how’s it going?” he asks. “Is everyone participating?” Huddled together, the boys discuss who is or isn’t playing properly and how to help the losing team score. The pep talk works. A few minutes later, one boy shouts to a teammate, “You guard this half, and I’ll guard this half.” And the losing team improves a great deal.

When the period’s nearly over, the kids gather in a circle as Grosshans asks them to talk about those players who performed well. One boy answers, “Connor.” Why? “Because he stopped the ball.” The coach nudges him along: “Because he helped the team, right?” Then everyone rates today’s game. “I give it a 10,” Grosshans announces, adding, “because everyone showed their strength.”

Focusing on kids’ strengths is a Lab School priority, not just because it builds confidence but also because it’s practical. If a kid loves baseball, for example, she can be taught math via the box scores. With this idea in mind, the school creates individualized schedules for its students, who attend classes with kids of similar developmental maturity. Accordingly, the school has “divisions,” rather than grades: elementary (5- to 9-year-olds), intermediate (10-13), junior high (12-15), and senior high (14-19).

The best way to understand learning disabilities is to think of a brain with faulty wiring, which results in an immature neurological system. That wiring—caused by a number of factors, from genetics to injuries—dictates the type of disability from which a kid suffers. Dyslexia, for example, is in part a reordering of letters that causes reading and writing problems. Someone with dyscalculia, on the other hand, can’t make sense of mathematics. LD students face a host of information-processing challenges, the bottom line being that many everyday functions—such as organizing one’s closet and reciting the days of the week— often are tremendously difficult.

Put these elements together, and you have kids with personal problems as well. In simple terms, an LD child who’s 8 may have the social skills of a 3-year-old. But, Smith points out, these kids are able to fix—or, at the very least, learn to cope with—some specific problems. Two famous dyslexia sufferers, Cher and Tom Cruise, serve as good examples. “Often, LD kids are really smart and way behind,” Smith explains.

Something that helps to prove her point is a sign Smith has hung for visitors in her school. It reads: “This si wat a learmimg bisadleb qerson frepuehtly hasto conteub with wheu attemqtiug ot nead a dook.”

All 310 students at the Lab School suffer from moderate to severe learning disabilities.

The signs in Erin Garvin’s classroom tell even more of the story. Pretty and petite, the twentysomething Garvin teaches 10- and 11-year-olds. On the wall, she’s hung a “Punctuation Code,” on which the word “period” is followed by a period, then “clap.” “Question mark” is grouped with "?” and “shrug.” “We read sentences aloud,” Garvin explains, “and the kids all do the gestures to reinforce how the punctuation works.” This physical approach does wonders for her students, she adds, because they often have a rough time with abstract ideas.

On another wall, a bulletin board is populated by characters made from paper plates. One, Billy Bob Joe, who has beads hanging from his mouth, is visiting from outer space. Oh, and he eats people, according to an accompanying explanation. Writing is very difficult for many LD kids, so artwork is a much more effective means of storytelling. For one thing, it’s not intimidating: There’s no right or wrong way to make art, notes Smith. It does, however, demand organizational skills and encourages creativity, something most LD students have in abundance, she says. As a result, art lessons—dance, drama, and music included—are in no short supply at the Lab School.

Art, however, is not the only means with which Garvin keeps order in her classroom. Every desk faces a wall, to limit distractions. She also offers rewards for positive behavior, as do most teachers at the school. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that she has three assistants—two Lab School-trained volunteers and a grad student from nearby American University—for 11 kids. She also has access to social workers, occupational and speech therapists, and other specialists.

With this kind of individualized attention, it’s no wonder that almost all of the students—who come predominantly from the D.C. school district, as well as districts in Maryland and Virginia—manage to make their ways back to regular schools. Though kids spend anywhere from one to 11 years at the school, the average stay is three to four. In some cases, kids outgrow disabilities, but most often they utilize coping techniques they’ve learned at the Lab School. Kids who have trouble writing, for example, are encouraged to compose outlines before tackling full-fledged essays or, when putting together a weekly schedule, to draw pictures.

Knowing your limitations is extremely important, according to Smith, who relates the story of one former Lab School student who went to college, where he told his professor that he’s a visual learner. That professor, says Smith, made an extra effort to bring slides and other visual aids to class and was later thanked by many of his students, not just the one who’d initially approached him, for doing so.

But mainstreaming, while a Lab School goal, is not its sole purpose. For many kids, such as Sean Poppert, the place is a sanctuary. Tall and pale, with light-brown hair and dark-brown eyes, the 11-year-old says he was miserable before transferring to the Lab School last year. He suffers from dyslexia, and he felt certain that other kids considered him too stupid to befriend. But now he says: “School’s fun. The teacher doesn’t write stuff on the board and you have to copy it like in public school....It was harder for me to learn there because the teacher had to pay attention to the whole, big class and not just one kid.”

According to Garvin and his mother, Sean has made significant progress in the past year. The academic club approach is particularly helpful, offering him information he’s currently unable to get from books. Sean’s mother, Jennifer, explains that she and her husband battled the public school system for a full year to get the aid needed to place their son at the Lab School. But, she says, it was well worth the effort.

Twenty percent of the school’s students come from families who decided, on their own, that their kids require specialized care. So they pay the tuition—which, this year, is $18,000—themselves. Sean Poppert is part of the majority, the other 80 percent whose tuition is covered by a combination of district, state, and federal money, thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

IDEA, passed in 1975 after disabilities activists waged a battle for education rights, opened the doors for hundreds of thousands of kids who’d been excluded from public education. Schools must now serve all special ed students, the physically and learning disabled alike. Most study in public school classrooms with extra help or in resource rooms, where tutoring and additional services are provided. But if a school fails to supply an “appropriate” education, its district must foot the bill for private tuition. Acquiring this kind of aid isn’t easy, though; parents often have to slog through a swamp of procedures, including meetings with school officials, formal hearings, appeals to state boards of education, and, sometimes, lawsuits.

Because so many kids are developmentally immature, teamwork is stressed in gym classes.
—David Kidd

In the Washington, D.C., school district, where the special ed program is, for a variety of reasons, deeply troubled, many disabled kids end up in private schools—and at no small cost. Last year, the district paid the Lab School $4.3 million for its share of students.

One of D.C.'s biggest problems is shared by districts nationwide. In the past decade, the number of special ed students has increased by 30 percent, to 6 million. And LD kids account for half that population. As these numbers have grown, the debate over identifying students with learning disabilities has intensified. How, some wonder, can educators tell the difference between a “slow learner” and someone with a genuine disability?

Clint Bolick, a lawyer who argues school-related cases for the D.C.-based Institute for Justice, jumped into the fray several years ago, after educators diagnosed his elementary school-aged son with a writing disability. Although the boy wasn’t sent to a private school, he did have to go through a battery of tests and receive tutoring. “I don’t accept that label as an accurate description,” Bolick says of the diagnosis. “He has no disability in the normal sense of the word. Like many people, he has strengths and weaknesses....IDEA was created to assist children with actual disabilities. That’s different from kids without disabilities who have special needs.”

Smith has heard such complaints before. “My answer to that is...we’re all learning differently,” she says. “But what we’re talking about [with the diagnosis of LD] is a group of kids where there is a constellation of difficulties.”

Smith and others do admit, however, that because a universal diagnostic technique does not exist, the LD label is sometimes misused, either to get failing kids extra help or to alleviate the pressures of over-packed classrooms.

While many argue about the actual numbers, nearly all agree the LD problem does exist. The question is: How do we best educate these children? Some advocates focus on the IDEA mandate that special ed kids be taught in “the least restrictive environment.” In Los Angeles, for example, a group of parents took the school district to court in 1996 to fight for inclusion, which they believe promotes progress and fosters tolerance. Now, following a federal court order, the district is working aggressively to integrate nearly all special ed students into regular classrooms.

Though experts generally agree that inclusion is ideal, many say it just isn’t working at this point. Jane Browning, executive director of the Learning Disabilities Association of America, claims that some schools simply dump special ed kids into regular classrooms. “Many parents get so frustrated that they end up going to a private school,” she adds. “This ought to say something to the public education systems, that they are not doing something right.” Often, LD kids who remain in public schools eventually drop out: Citing the latest figures available, the U.S. Department of Education reports that, during the 1998-99 school year, 27 percent of LD kids over the age of 14 left school. The general dropout rate was 11 percent.

“What becomes of the [under-served] LD children? They start abusing drugs; they wind up in jail. Or if it’s a girl, she seeks meaning in life and gets pregnant,” says Browning. “Maybe 40 percent of teen mothers have learning disabilities....In the face of that, is a segregated environment preferable? Probably.”

So it’s not surprising that Browning and others in her field are holding their collective breath as they await Congress’ reauthorization of IDEA, scheduled for later this year. Last time around, the process began in 1994 and ended three years later, after legislators sorted through piles of changes proposed by scores of experts. This time, the topics of discussion include the immense sums of money special ed devours; school- choice vouchers for disabled kids; and a reshaping of diagnostic categories that could significantly affect LD kids’ coverage under the law.

Smith worries about any change that might sever aid for kids who really need it. “There are some LD students who are so emotionally fragile and learning- fragile that they fall apart in the mainstream,” she says. They require either the attention of a special ed teacher in a public school or admission to a private school. “Our kids are so fragile,” Smith continues. “It’s something that goes with that different brain. They’re emotionally incredibly vulnerable.”

Smith speaks from experience. She knows lots about her students and recalls many who attended the Lab School years—in some cases, decades—ago. One boy is particularly memorable. At the age of 7, he couldn’t recite the alphabet. But one day in another private school, he made a whip- smart comparison between Greek myths and an Indian rain dance. His teacher walked up to him, grabbed him in irritation, and said, “So why can’t you read the word ‘cat’?”

Turns out, the boy was one of Smith’s three sons.

Writing is very difficult for many LD kids, so artwork is a much more effective means of storytelling.

Thirty- six years ago, Gary Smith was failing 1st grade. Although thousands of special ed schools exist today, back then, Smith and her husband (whom she’s since divorced) had scant options. “There were these dump holes. I don’t know what you call them,” she says. “Any kid who looked funny or couldn’t learn was thrown into this mix.”

Smith had been helping Gary with his schoolwork in their Northwest D.C. home by using arts projects and hands-on activities. She had a combined master’s degree in psychology and cultural anthropology and had even published a book, A Child’s Guide to a Parent’s Mind, when she was just 20—and not yet a parent. But she wasn’t a teacher. So her thought was to find an educator, or institution, whom she could help start up a new school that took the same kinds of approaches she had with Gary.

For months, she scoured the Washington, D.C., region, and just about every door she knocked on got slammed in her face. “I was in desperation,” she recalls. But after returning from vacation in the summer of 1967, she received a telegram, from the director of one of the places she’d visited, a tutoring outfit called Kingsbury Center. Her idea was a good one, the telegram noted, but Kingsbury wouldn’t be able to run the school. Maybe Smith could.

This was not something she had seriously considered, but at that point “I didn’t feel I had a choice,” Smith recalls. So, by setting up shop in Kingsbury’s facilities and with the help of friends—including teachers she’d worked with on an inner-city youth project—she got going that fall. On the first day, her “school” had four kids; by the end of the week, it had 11; by January 1998, she’d enrolled 25; and a month later they moved into a bigger space. A year later, a local TV news program recognized the school as one of the most innovative programs in Washington.

Still, Smith was tentative early on. “Of course, I felt like a fake for the first few years,” she explains. “I kept saying to the head of the tutoring center and the board, ‘You should know this is my own theoretical framework and not the work of a great anybody.’” Already, though, that framework included the Academic Club Method, which she’d stumbled across while putting together themed birthday parties—Secret Agent, Civil War—for her own kids. Gary didn’t know if four was greater or less than three, but he did remember every detail of those parties.

Over time, Smith’s seat-of-the-pants approach paid off. Gary went on to college and is now an educator himself; he teaches computers in a program for elementary students at the University of the District of Columbia. And in 1982, the Lab School was able to purchase its own site, an idyllic campus not far from Georgetown that overlooks a reservoir. Once the address of the Florence Crittenton Home for unwed mothers, the site features a gym, a performing arts center, a large courtyard, and two 19th- century buildings that have been renovated. One is referred to as “the castle,” thanks to its red-stone spires. Each year, 400 applicants—including 10 to 15 from across the country—vie for roughly 40 spots at the school, and the teaching staff, now averaging 75, has a reputation for excellence.

“The Lab School does absolutely fabulous stuff,” says the LDAA’s Browning. “And it has to do with the quality of the faculty. The school is very nurturing of its staff; people’s individual needs are attended to and creativity encouraged.”

Early one May morning, Smith waits in her office for five teachers to arrive. She’s a plump woman with tousled blond hair and a big laugh— a heavy, throaty chortle audible across the hall. But her laugh isn’t nearly as dramatic as her wardrobe, which, today, includes leopard-spotted glasses, three long scarves, dangling earrings, a multicolored watch, and a pink pinkie ring. Smith is eye-poppingly energetic for a woman her age, or any age. (She won’t reveal her birth date, saying she doesn’t want to be judged by a number. But here’s a hint: She’s old enough to have three sons in their 40s.)

Her office, brimming with tchotchkes, including a figurine clad in a coconut bra and grass skirt, overlooks the campus’s wetlands project. Because D.C. law requires protection of the reservoir habitat, the faculty decided to turn the land into an outdoor classroom. Other offerings from Smith and her school include night classes for LD adults, a tutoring service, a video on education methods, and, since 2000, a second campus, located in nearby Baltimore.

At 7:45, the teachers file into Smith’s office, where a breakfast of strawberries, coffee, and homemade muffins awaits. Every week, these teachers meet to discuss their academic clubs. Don Vicks, who heads up the Middle Ages group, reports that his students are studying architecture. He’s brought along one of the gargoyles they made by punching holes in balsa wood, among other techniques. He places a basin on his lap, picks up a pitcher, pours water into the head, and—voilà! —it spews out of the gargoyle’s mouth (and onto a fellow teacher sitting nearby). The visuals, Vicks explains, remind kids that gargoyles were the gutters of their day; they diverted rainwater away from buildings. Although Vicks’ demonstration will be the most compelling of the morning, the four other club leaders engage in the same kind of show and tell.

As much as Smith loves spending time with teachers, it takes a lot more to keep the Lab School operation humming.

Later, during another faculty meeting, the topic is the upcoming Robert Rauschenberg Day, an annual professional-development extravaganza for art teachers from across the country who work with LD kids. In addition to classes and performances, the school presents a piece of student work done in honor of the learning disabled painter.

This year, the kids have been working for months on a life-size representation of the mythical horse Pegasus, which is taking form nicely out back, its sleek, white feet curled in a hardy gallop. The group has to decide how best to present the piece. After some discussion, Smith concludes that its creators should wheel the horse before the crowd—it’s a pride-of-ownership thing. This sparks a yuk-filled discussion about the music that should accompany Pegasus’ entrance. “Happy Trails”? “Wildfire”? Maybe the theme from Mister Ed?

As much as Smith loves spending time with teachers, it takes a lot more to keep the Lab School operation humming. Today she has phone calls to make and several more meetings scheduled. During lunch, she’ll eat in a Hungarian “restaurant” created by 12- and 13-year-olds learning about Hungary. She also has to figure out how to put a recent donation of $30,000 to good use.

Money often pervades Smith’s thoughts, mainly because hers is not a wealthy private school with a huge endowment. While tuition helps cover most of the Lab School’s costs, grants and fund-raisers are also necessary. The school has won major financial support in the past: $8.9 million in donations, for example, that covered the construction of the school’s gym and its performing arts center. But such facilities—absolutely necessary for the welfare of her students, Smith claims—come at another kind of cost. “Ever since we put up these gorgeous buildings where we had to, I mean, crawl for money, people treat us as a rich group,” she complains.

Any complaint, however, quickly fades as Smith proceeds with her day, which is punctuated by frequent visits from teachers and kids. It’s easy to see why she’s so popular: Smith is a blast to be with. She’s unpretentious and warm. She blows kisses a lot. At one point, she gets a phone call from a Dr. Somebody whom she addresses as “baby doll.”

This playful side of Smith has a lot to do with what makes the Lab School successful, according to teachers. “She reminds us to keep the fun going,” notes Bicknell. “If we’re not having fun, the kids probably aren’t having fun. And if the kids aren’t having fun, they might not be learning.”

Which is not to say that Smith isn’t sometimes tough on teachers. She readily admits that she tends toward perfectionism. “I’m demanding of myself, so I guess I’m demanding of them,” she explains. “I also see myself as somebody who rewards excellent teaching. I do a lot of writing notes telling people how good they are, when I mean it. At the same time, though, I demand my standards.”

Those standards have paid off. Harriet Lerner, a professor emeritus of special education at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, considers the Lab School one of the best for LD kids in the country. Last year, she talked extensively with kids, parents, and staff as part of the school’s accreditation process, and she’s particularly impressed by the number of students who go on to fine colleges. (Among many other schools, former Lab School students have attended Brown, Bard, Smith, and Oberlin.) In fact, Lerner says she’d love to see the Lab School model replicated elsewhere. “Others have had the goal of copying it but haven’t pulled it off,” she notes. “I think it needs Sally’s personality and commitment to get it off the ground.”

Perhaps Smith is the only one capable of creating another Lab School, as she’s already done in Baltimore. But her philosophic and practical approaches to teaching learning disabled students are, by no means, secrets. Smith is the author of eight books, most of which focus on LD kids. And, as director of the master’s degree program in learning disabilities at American University, she’s been training teachers for 26 years. In fact, many Lab School staff members studied under Smith at AU.

Smith’s dynamic personality certainly comes in handy when dealing with parents, who can be the school’s toughest critics. “I don’t know how to phrase this,” Smith says cautiously. “The hardest job is trying to help parents understand that progress is uneven and that their child may be making progress but that it’s not measurable yet and that it’s OK.” Some parents have other kids attending Ivy League schools, and if their LD kids don’t succeed, they sometimes feel let down, Smith explains.

Fun is the key to teaching, according to Smith.
—David Kidd

Most parents, however, are supportive. “We just love the Lab School. [Sean] was getting so frustrated in public school,” says Jennifer Poppert. “He was getting angry. He would come home and throw his book bag down and say, ‘I hate school.’...Now I can see such a change in him. It’s like a whole different personality. He just gets right up and gets on the bus. He’s so appreciative because he knows they’ll find a way to help him.”

Benjamin Jonas, a 21-year-old junior at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Florida, attended the Lab School from the time he was 6 till he graduated. He experienced serious problems as a child: Born prematurely at just under three pounds, he had difficulty processing information. For years, he couldn’t conduct a normal conversation with his mother. If she’d ask, “How are you,” he’d reply: “I’m 5 years old.” But now, with the help of coping techniques learned at the Lab School, he’s doing well in college and aspires to be a film animator. Above all, his former teachers helped him to be positive. “I see having a learning disability not as a problem,” he says, “but as a challenge that I want to embrace, a challenge to do the best I can.”

One of the greatest measures of the Lab School’s success is how vividly, and fondly, students from decades ago remember it. Steven Jones, for example, attended the school for only two years, from 1983 to ‘85. Before transferring from a parochial school in 7th grade, he was having a tough time in nearly every subject. “It didn’t matter how much studying I did or what way I studied, whether by rote or by locking myself in a room and trying to read,” he recalls. “As many times as I’d read a paragraph, it wouldn’t sink in.” And though he knew how to add, subtract, and multiply, he’d carry out the steps to math solutions in the wrong order. In turn, he got lots of D’s on his report cards and began acting out.

“I was struggling mightily with 35 kids in a class,” Jones says. “At the Lab School, the classes were much smaller, so I’d be more comfortable asking questions.” Coping skills were also a big help: Teachers suggested, for one, that he color-code all his folders, notebooks, and textbooks so that each morning, he wouldn’t be bombarded by a jumbled, confusing mass. “The changes led me to want to learn more,” he recalls. “I got hungry to read and try other things.”

That hunger led him to the College of Wooster, in Ohio, from which he graduated in the late ‘80s. He then decided to become an educator himself. “I appreciated so much the attention, the care that the staff there took, the patience,” explains Jones, who’s a career-development counselor at Bell Multicultural Senior High, a D.C. charter school.

Jones’ story, while exceptional, is symbolic. He lives up to the ideal most special ed practitioners shoot for: getting students into the mainstream as quickly, and effectively, as possible. The fact that the Lab School helped him do that wouldn’t surprise those well-acquainted with the institution.

“I knew there were more students before me and after me who had similar struggles,” Jones says. “I wanted them to know there are no limitations to what they can accomplish. I want every student out there—I don’t care what their learning differences are—to know that they can succeed. I want them to know: Here’s someone standing before you who has a learning disability, and I’m happy. I’m happy to get up in the morning and do the job I do.”


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