Sign language could fill graduation requirement

Staff Writer

 Parlin Gressitt, left, practices signing with Phoebe Gartside during an American Sign Language program at the Middletown Township Public Library on June 27. Gartside, a senior at Middletown High School South, founded the program along with classmate Sarah Maggipinto to teach the basics of signing, which could become a world language option for high school students under a proposed bill.  SCOTT FRIEDMAN Parlin Gressitt, left, practices signing with Phoebe Gartside during an American Sign Language program at the Middletown Township Public Library on June 27. Gartside, a senior at Middletown High School South, founded the program along with classmate Sarah Maggipinto to teach the basics of signing, which could become a world language option for high school students under a proposed bill. SCOTT FRIEDMAN High school students in New Jersey may one day be able to fulfill their language requirement for graduation by learning American Sign Language.

A bill that would recognize American Sign Language (ASL) as an option for high school students to meet their world language graduation requirement is on its way to the governor’s desk after gaining approval from the state Assembly.

The bill, A4212/S1760, passed by a vote of 74-0 at a June 11 session of the Assembly. When asked whether the bill is likely to be approved by Gov. Chris Christie, Brian Murray, a spokesperson with the governor’s office, said, “We generally withhold comment until bills actually reach his desk and our office has been able to give them a full review.”

If signed by Christie, the bill would take effect on July 1 of the first school year following enactment.

“When I saw this, I thought it was a really innovative way to get students to learn a new skill,” said Assemblywoman Mary Pat Angelini (R-Monmouth), one of the bill’s sponsors.

According to Angelini, ASL is the fourth most commonly used language in the country, and is one of the fastest-growing languages being offered at colleges nationwide.

“This bill would provide high school students the opportunity to begin studying ASL at an earlier age, opening the door to careers in deaf-related fields, which are expanding nationwide,” she said. According to Angelini, approximately 850,000 residents throughout the state have some degree of hearing loss, ranging from mild to profound.

“It would greatly benefit those that are hearing impaired, as they would be able to communicate with a broader part of the community,” she said.

According to the state Department of Education, ASL allows students and teachers to engage in all three modes of communication — interpersonal, interpretive and presentational — through the use and movements of the hands, arms and body.

The bill would not require school districts to offer ASL courses.

David Saenz, deputy press secretary with the state Department of Education, said while ASL has been recognized as a world language under department standards since 1996, only a handful of local school districts throughout the state teach ASL to students.

The state education department mandates that high school students — no matter what language they choose to take — must earn five world language credits. New Jersey high school seniors need a total of 120 credits in order to graduate.

“It is up to the local districts to decide on their world language programs,” Saenz said.

At the Middletown Township Public Library, Middletown High School South students Sarah Maggipinto and Phoebe Gartside host a weekly ASL class, where community members not only learn the basics of the language, but use what they learn to interact with their fellow classmates.

“I really like learning sign language and being able to teach what I know to others,” Sarah said.

While the class started at the library in July 2012, Sarah said she first got involved with learning and teaching ASL to her fellow classmates in middle school.

“In eighth grade, I had started a sign language club at my middle school,” she said.

According to Sarah, what started out as a game between herself and her friends one day in class grew into something bigger.

“I went home that weekend, looked up more on sign language and I just started teaching my friends at the lunch table, and it kind of grew from there.”

While the program offered at the library is mainly geared toward students in grades six to 12, Sarah said the response has been amazing, and has enabled many others to get involved as well.

“We didn’t realize how wide a group we would get that are interested in ASL,” she said.

From hard-of-hearing individuals coming to learn for themselves, to parents coming to learn because their child is deaf or hard-of-hearing, Sarah said she is proud of the impact the class has had.

“Some people maybe come for one, two classes, but there are people who have been coming to each class, each week for a while,” she said.

According to Sarah, a typical class includes going over the alphabet; learning “people” words such as “mom” or “inlaws”; and playing different interactive activities like “Jeopardy.”

“It is always great when you see the older members — people who have been coming to meetings for a while — teaching new members,” she said.

“Some are shy and don’t talk when they first come in, and I think it is great seeing them grow and becoming more confident and comfortable interacting with others … to the point where they are even helping others with what to do.”

In the United States, ASL is the primary language of an estimated 100,000 to 500,000 Americans, according to Barbara Strassman, coordinator of the Program for Education of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ).

“Our ASL classes are very popular,” she said. “Sometimes I think students take it because they think it’ll be easier … but that isn’t the case.”

One reason that ASL is not offered in more school districts throughout the state is the lack of qualified teachers, according to Strassman.

To teach ASL in public schools, applicants must complete a minimum of 30 credits in a coherent sequence in the subject field of ASL, according to the state Department of Education.

Of those 30 credits, at least 12 must be completed as a junior or senior at a regionally accredited college or university or at the graduate level.

“Receiving certification can be difficult. … Colleges just don’t offer the programs,” Strassman said.

She added that she is in favor of the legislation, saying there are many benefits to allowing high school students to take ASL courses.

One such benefit Strassman mentioned is inclusion.

When a deaf student is able to directly communicate with a hearing peer in ASL, both feel more comfortable, according to Strassman.

“By offering ASL courses, it not only benefits those students with hearing loss, but it also allows hearing students to have a more direct interaction and conversation with their peers,” she said.

Strassman said direct communication is why students in the program at TCNJ are required to attend cultural events where they can interact with those who are deaf.

Julie Warshaw, an attorney at the Warren based Warshaw Law Firm who practices special education law, said offering students the option to study ASL rather than other traditional languages could help remove some of the negative stigma that revolves around individuals with hearing disabilities.

“There are not many schools specifically for students with hearing impairments,” she said. “Today, a lot of the students are just integrated into the general student body … which can be socially isolating for students who are hearing impaired because they then cannot communicate freely with their peers who have not learned ASL.”

Warshaw said ASL is a multisensory language that focuses on the visuals as opposed to other “romance” languages that focus on things such as grammar and pronunciation.

“It can be difficult for a student to process a language as it is,” she said. “For students with [any type] of disabilities, it can be even more of a struggle. … For example, they may not be able to conjugate verbs or recognize grammatical nuances.”

Aside from offering ASL courses to all students and hiring more certified teachers to teach those courses, Warshaw said school districts could undertake a number of steps to allow more students to study ASL.

“More and more districts are starting to offer what is called Option II,” she said. “With Option II, students can take online courses to fulfill graduation requirements.”

She said school districts could also share services with one another to offset costs of programs and teachers.

“I think this bill is very important for all students, and not just those with hearing impairments,” Warshaw said.

Senator Diane Allen (R-Burlington) first introduced the bill in March 2014.

After being referred to the Senate Education Committee, the bill was passed in early 2015 in a 36-0 vote.

Once passed by the Senate, the bill was introduced in the Assembly in February and referred to the Assembly Education Committee before being passed June 11.