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Districts weigh the value of sign language classes

Rush-Henrietta, a local leader, might cut back

Marketta Gregory
Staff writer

Nicole Newton.jpg(May 1, 2007) — Nicole Newton wrote 1 cent, 5 cents, 10 cents and other amounts of change on the blackboard to teach her eighth-grade students new vocabulary.

Newton signed the words, and her Greece Arcadia Middle School students copied her, moving their hands in unison.

“Some signers may finger-spell c-e-n-t-s,” Newton said during one of the few times she used her voice to communicate. “It’s just a matter of preference.”

Soon the class moved on to a review of household words, such as “cupboard” and “pillow,” and then to a discussion on cultural nuances, much as students in Spanish or French might do, but more quietly.

Do students gain as much academically from American Sign Language as they do from spoken languages such as German or Chinese? That’s the question at the heart of a debate in the Rush-Henrietta district, where the school board is considering phasing out ASL in the middle schools but keeping it at the high school.

Besides Rush-Henrietta, Greece and some Rochester schools also offer ASL to middle-school students.

According to the Rush-Henrietta proposal, the district wants to focus on preparing students for a worldwide community, and ASL — unlike other languages — is used primarily in the United States. Also, languages such as Spanish and French have students listening, speaking, reading and writing, while ASL “is limited in its literary connections.”

Globally aware

Eighth-grade students can take a New York State Second Language Proficiency exam, and if they pass, they’ve earned one high school credit in a foreign language. That one high school credit is enough for a student to graduate with a Regents diploma, said Lisa Sanford, Rush-Henrietta’s director of languages other than English, who is author of the recent proposal. “We really want to be sure that first core language is a world language,” she said, adding that ASL would still be taught at the high school. “We want to create citizens who are literate and globally aware.”

But ASL still fits all of those requirements, said Jarlene Villalobos, who chose to have her daughter, who is deaf, attend Rush-Henrietta’s Leary Elementary School.

“It’s not just gestures or miming,” said Villalobos, who is also deaf. “We have a vocabulary, and we can translate that into the written language.”

ASL, like English, is widely accepted around the world, she said. “They use that as a model. It’s a very powerful and impactful language.”

When Ted Supalla travels to international deaf conferences, attendees always come up with a pidgin form of sign language that carries them through.

“ASL is the lingua franca,” said Supalla, director of the Sign Language Research Center at the University of Rochester. Besides, for years, most deaf professionals were educated at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. “Its impact has been global, and as a result, ASL has gone global.”

Elite languages

The larger problem — historically and maybe even now — is the idea that if a language is not spoken, it’s not as good, Supalla said.

Throughout history there have been elite languages. For example, every university taught Greek and Latin at one time because it was the language of the philosophers, of the wise. Even deaf education went through a period when sign language wasn’t allowed. Deaf students, like Supalla, were told to read lips and to practice speaking.

“We don’t want to brainwash kids with this archaic thought,” said Supalla, who with his colleagues has found that ASL and spoken languages all come from the left hemisphere of the brain and that ASL is “organized and acquired” like other languages.

ASL students in Greece have been tracking what’s happening in Rush-Henrietta, and several said they’re glad they can learn the language before high school.

Fourteen-year-old Vicky Tranello needs ASL to talk with her neighbor. And if Taylor Kurmis, who is also 14, had to wait until high school, then she would be able to take only three years of classes instead of five.

“Everyone should have a choice in what they take,” said Analisya Ramos, 14.


Sometimes those choices come at a cost, said Thaddeus Mack, a recent Rush-Henrietta graduate and member of the school board.

“After taking ASL, I did have a hard time with college applications,” he said during a recent board meeting when the discussion turned to whether ASL is accepted as a foreign language.

At the State University College at Brockport, that wouldn’t be a problem, said Nicholas Mascari, spokesman for the university. ASL is accepted as a foreign language. Besides, incoming freshmen aren’t required to have any high-school-level foreign language credits. They do have to have one college-level credit in a foreign language to get a degree from SUNY Brockport, though.

ASL also is accepted as a foreign language at the University of Rochester and Monroe Community College, said spokeswomen for those schools.

Rush-Henrietta students can figure out for themselves if learning ASL is worth any potential hassles with colleges, said Diane McBride, another board member. And instead of talking about trimming a language at the middle-school level, the district should be focused on offering languages even earlier, she said.

Several area school districts are talking about which languages they should be offering and how early they should be introducing them to students, because the world and its influential languages are changing.

More than a year ago, Fairport schools formed a committee to discuss foreign languages, said Gerald Bucklin, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. It talked briefly about American Sign Language but really focused on Mandarin.

“It’s the logistical issues that we have a problem with, not the philosophical,” he said, adding that finding instructors certified in Mandarin is difficult.

Rochester schools, with the help of a federal grant, are ready to start offering Chinese to fourth-graders at School 3 once they find a teacher, said David Baez, director of foreign languages. Chinese, Arabic and Japanese are all languages that the federal government has identified as “critical,” he said, and more and more schools are offering them and phasing out less popular languages such as Italian and German.

The city district added ASL because of community needs.

“A lot of our ASL students have friends or siblings who are deaf, and this opened a door to them,” Baez said.

Wheatland-Chili, with 833 students districtwide, offers only two languages — French and Spanish — because of its size, said Superintendent Thomas Gallagher. But Spanish is particularly useful with the nation’s growing Spanish-speaking population, he said.

Rush-Henrietta has a large hard-of-hearing and deaf population within its district, primarily because of Rochester Institute of Technology’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf and its graduates.

Still, it’s not a cut-and-dried decision, said Edward Lincoln, Rush-Henrietta board president. The district has to balance its responsibilities for exposing students to deaf culture and for exposing them to other cultures of the world.

“Our students are entering a world that is figuratively smaller, and they will have to interact with people in other parts of the world,” he said. “I really don’t know how I’m going to vote.”

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