A bill could be reintroduced in state government that would make it a requirement for American sign language to be treated equally to other world language graduation requirements in schools where it is offered.
Rep. Rich Irvin, R-Spruce Creek Township, said he plans to study House Bill 572, and push for it to be passed.
And it’s all thanks to a Park Forest Middle School student who brought it to his attention.
Eighth-grader Melody Sharp, 13, found a passion for sign language after picking it up in first grade.
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“I think it’s important for it to be taught in schools so there can be more interpreters and (ASL) teachers,” she said.
On June 23, Melody met with the legislator, lobbying for ASL in Pennsylvania schools.
“I wanted to offer my services and help her move this forward,” Irvin said. “I think it would be a good program. There is always a need for sign language, and something that can be used after high school.”
A bill was introduced Feb. 8, 2001, to recognize ASL as foreign language coursework for high school graduation requirements, which would make it a requirement for some teachers to get certified in ASL.
The bill was passed by the House with a vote of 197-1 on Oct. 8, 2002, and was to take effect July 1, 2003.
But the bill “died,” Irvin said.
“There is no further history on it,” Irvin said. “It died then. These things happen. If you have a bill that negatively affects what was best for other offices, then no action happens and it just dies.”
Irvin said the next steps are to reintroduce the bill and ask for co-sponsors, then re-refer it to the education committee.
“I would basically see if they can have a hearing on it,” Irvin said. “The fact that it passed before doesn’t seem like it would be too controversial of a bill.”
School ASL programs
Not all school districts in Centre County offer sign language programs.
About two years ago, Melody started a sign language club at Park Forest Middle School with reading teacher Candice Packer. The club includes about 15 students.
“When I grow up, I want to be an interpreter and work with the deaf culture,” Melody said. “This is important because it’s a cool language.”
At Bellefonte Area Middle School, an activity period is offered to students who want to learn about the language and deaf culture, but no formal classes are offered, said teacher Kim Sharp, who is also president of the Bellefonte Area Education Association.
“It’s truly its own language with grammar language and syntax,” Sharp said.
Bald Eagle Area School District also does not offer formal sign language classes. The district actually only offers Spanish as a language, said Director of Special Education Melissa Butterworth.
Butterworth added that the Intermediate Units offer sign language classes for teachers.
Intermediate Units oversee regions of school districts in the commonwealth. CIU 10, in West Decatur, oversees 12 public school districts in Centre, Clearfield and Clinton counties.
The district would likely send teachers to become certified through CIU 10 if the law passes, Butterworth said.
But it’s not something that has been addressed yet by the district.
Sharp said that according to her own personal research, the only school in the state that has an established ASL program is Parkland High School in Allentown.
Parkland High School ASL teacher Jill Fuller said she and a part-time ASL teacher run the four-year program that starts for students their freshman year. The credits are equivalent to those of other languages offered at the school.
The program started in the 1995-96 school year.
“They’re learning 500 to 700 words their first year and can have a good grasp on it by the time they finish,” Fuller said. “It’s a great resource for students who want to learn a different language, especially those students who are more visual learners.”
When Fuller started teaching at Parkland High School in 1996-97, she hoped to collaborate curriculum with other teachers in the state.
“That didn’t happen, because there weren’t a lot of (ASL) classes elsewhere,” she said. “It would be nice to be able to have more schools in Pennsylvania that offer it.”
The state Department of Education could not confirm how many schools in the state have an ASL program because Pennsylvania is a “local controlled state” and schools are not required to report all classes and curriculum to the PDE, said information specialist Jessica Hickernell.
On Friday, Melody also met with Sen. Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, who said he would also look into the bill.
“I guess I just hope it gets approved to be taught in schools,” Melody said.
Irvin said he didn’t have a timeline of how long the process could take to reintroduce the bill and get support.