BALTIMORE-Maryland students may soon have another option for foreign language credit: American Sign Language.
The state board of education decided Tuesday to further explore allowing schools to offer the class for more than elective credit. But several obstacles stand in the way, including a lack of qualified teachers.
There are currently more than 1,300 students in Maryland schools who are deaf or hard of hearing, but State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said she expected a course in sign language would appeal to hearing students as well as the hearing impaired.
Indeed, board member Jo Ann T. Bell compared sign language to foreign language, saying “Spanish and ASL are plus points on a resume,” especially for emergency workers.
During the meeting, an interpreter signed for deaf members of the audience. At one point, Grasmick, who earned her master’s degree in 1965 from Gallaudet University, a leader in deaf education, signed a few words.
“My signs are very, very poor because I don’t practice,” she said and signed at the same time.
Offering American Sign Language as a foreign language would increase enrollment, said Carol Ann Baglin, assistant state superintendent for the Division of Special Education and Early Intervention Services.
Because more students would know sign language, hearing-impaired students would be able to participate in more activities with their peers, she said.
And Colleen Seremet, assistant superintendent of the Division of Instruction, said learning sign language is good for any student not just those who must rely on it for communication.
American Sign Language is “an important cultural element in the schools,” Seremet said.
Baglin said there is a need for skilled sign language interpreters in Maryland schools.
“A lot of (hearing-impaired) students rely on translators to have access to high quality education,” Baglin said.
About 400 Maryland students study American Sign Language, most in Montgomery County, Seremet said. American Sign Language is also offered in Anne Arundel, Carroll, Frederick and Prince George’s counties. All students in Maryland studying sign language earn elective credit, Seremet said.
She said administrators of county foreign language programs were interested in offering sign language for credit.
John Smealie, assistant superintendent of the Division of Certification and Accreditation, said there is no certification process to teach sign language in Maryland. That would be a major obstacle if the class were offered for foreign language credit.
Board chairman Edward L. Root said there is only one program in Maryland with a concentration in deaf education, at McDaniel College in Westminster. He said one program won’t be able to produce the number of sign language teachers needed if the class is offered for credit.
A sign language teacher certification program “would be expensive for a college to implement.” Root said. “It will be a money loser.”
Delegate Nancy J. King, D-Montgomery County, sponsored legislation in the General Assembly’s last session to require American Sign Language to be taught as a foreign language. House Bill 586 died in committee.
Grasmick said the board of education did not support that legislation because there is a “cardinal rule: The General Assembly will never make a decision concerning curriculum.”
American Sign Language is taught as a foreign language at institutions in the University System of Maryland and many other universities in the area. High schools in 24 states offer the class for credit, and some of those offer it as a foreign language.
Marty Abbott, director of education for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, said the council has voted to accept the American Sign Language Teachers Association as a member.
Although that’s “not the equivalent of saying it’s a foreign language, we’re seeing many states allowing it to fulfill the foreign language requirements.” Rebecca Kline, executive director of the Northeast Conference of Teachers of Foreign Languages, said according to an unpublished study, the number of public high schools that offer American Sign Language for foreign language credit has increased from 33 in 1992 to more than 700 in 2004.