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Hate High School Spanish? Learn to Sign.

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Arsenio Merced tells a story in American Sign Language to his classmates at Bronx Leadership Academy II in the South Bronx. For the first time, the school is offering ASL as a choice among foreign languages needed to meet graduation requirements. (Levi Fishman/CNS)

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David Buie runs through vocabulary drills with the students in his American Sign Language class at Bronx Leadership Academy II in the South Bronx. High schools nationwide are allowing students to choose ASL as a foreign-language requirement for graduation. (Levi Fishman/CNS)

The classroom at Bronx Leadership Academy II was silent as Arsenio Merced, 17, stood in the front of the room and told a story. When he finished, his fellow students, instead of clapping, held up their hands and shook them around.

Merced, a junior, is taking American Sign Language at this public school in the South Bronx section of New York City. Starting this academic year, students at Bronx Leadership can select American Sign Language to fulfill their language requirement instead of more traditional, spoken languages.

“Most of the students are here because they had trouble in other languages,” said David Buie, 29, the school’s sign language instructor. “They seem to be doing a lot better here than they did in Spanish or French.”

For the last two years, Buie has been teaching ASL as an elective, or what the school calls a club, at Bronx Leadership. Students who join the club learn basic vocabulary, and Buie teaches them a popular song of their choosing. Last year the students learned “Irreplaceable” by Beyonce, performing the song for the whole school at the end of the semester.

But this year, the school approached Buie, who has been studying ASL since 2005, to redesign the class from a club that meets once a week to a formal language course that counts toward graduation.

Merced decided to take the class not because he was having trouble in other languages, but because his aunt is deaf, and both her children are fluent in sign language.

“I wanted to learn it so I can talk to my aunt,” he said. “And by luck, I can teach it to some of my cousins.”

Merced said, with a deaf member of his family, he had always wanted to learn ASL but didn’t know where to take lessons. His aunt had a book, but it wasn’t enough to teach him.

“When I heard I could take it here, I was really interested,” he said. “I wanted to learn more.”

Bronx Leadership Academy II is one of a rapidly growing number of high schools across America that are using ASL as a foreign-language requirement. In 2000, according to a survey of state education departments by Teachers College at Columbia University, there were 456 high schools that taught ASL, not including high schools targeted toward deaf students. By 2004, the number had jumped to 701.

Steve Ackley, director of communications for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, in Alexandria, Va., said this sudden rise helped bring about his organization’s recent recognition of ASL as an official foreign language.

The council never deliberately left ASL teachers out, he said. “But there was a growing interest, a growing number of people in the ASL community that asked us to support it.”

Ackley said there was no opposition he could recall from inside or outside of his organization when it adopted the stance that sign language is a foreign language.

The council believes that ASL teachers are a legitimate part of the foreign-language community, he said, “and since we are the umbrella organization for all languages at all levels, it was a natural progression for them to become part of that.”

Geoffrey Poor, associate professor in the department of sign language and interpreting services at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, N.Y., said in an e-mail that in the linguistics community, the issue of ASL as a foreign language was “laid to rest” with the publication of A Dictionary of American Sign Language on Linguistic Principles in 1965 by William Stokoe, a sign language teacher at what is now Gallaudet University, the world-renowned university for the deaf in Washington, D.C. But in popular culture, he said, those who accept ASL as a foreign language are harder to come by.

“For a long time people figured, out of ignorance, that it was just miming, broken English, etc.,” he said about ASL. “However, there is no deaf cuisine or clothing or country,” which, Poor believes, is why “many people have resisted giving it a foreign-language status.”

Resistance to ASL seems to be waning. As of 2006, 41 states had approved of adding ASL to the foreign-language curriculum, with Nebraska being the most recent addition.

“A group of hard-of-hearing and not-hard-of-hearing people wanted to encourage more people to go into sign language,” said Jim Scheer, member of the Nebraska State Board of Education. He said the group wanted to encourage people to not only work in the deaf community, but also gain a skill that would give them a competitive edge in other professional fields, such as medicine and social work.

“The only problem we encountered was to teach the course, you need to be a certified teacher,” Scheer said.

Scheer explained that a teacher needs a college degree or an official endorsement, and there is only one college in the state, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, that teaches ASL. Right now, he said, only two high schools offer courses in ASL, but the hope is that since state approval, certified teachers from outside Nebraska will be attracted to the state.

“It’s like the chicken and the egg,” he said. “No teachers are currently certified, but we might give people interested in ASL an opportunity to get a degree and come back to teach.”

At Bronx Leadership Academy II, outside of Buie’s classroom, all the students have posted their names on a bulletin board with the various hand signs spelling out each one. Inside, they go over vocabulary words for an upcoming quiz. Merced eagerly shouts the words as Buie signs them out.

“This means a lot to me right now,” Merced said. “This is the reason I am doing this. Sometimes it will be hard, but I will take the chance.”

E-mail: lgf2105@columbia.edu