Although it took some time to implement, a message sent by a former student seeking the addition of American Sign Language to the high school curriculum was received loud and clear by Gahanna-Jefferson Public Schools.
Olivia Michael, a 2018 Lincoln alumna, said she asked that ASL be added as a class after she failed a Spanish class as a freshman because she couldn't hear.
She said she has bilateral cochlear implants, but she wanted to be part of and engage with the ASL community.
Michael said she worked with the Ohio School for the Deaf and was able to take ASL online during her sophomore and junior years at Lincoln High School.
"During that time, I had multiple people who were interested (in the class)," Michael said. "I told them it was only offered through my IEP. I feel language is best taught in person. That's why I advocated for an actual teacher."
She conducted a survey during her junior year at Lincoln to show student interest in the class and provided multiple presentations.
"It was a very long process," Michael said. "I had to be persistent, and my mother was by my side every step of the way. They approved it my senior year. I was happy I was able to do that for the rest of the kids at the high school."
Her mother, Jennifer Michael, said Olivia had two surgeries her freshman year for the implants because hearing aids no longer worked for her. Olivia has a hereditary condition that caused her hearing loss starting in elementary school.
Jennifer Michael said her daughter needed two years of a foreign language and the ASL from her sophomore and junior years counted.
"I'm very proud of her," she said about her daughter.
When ASL was added for the 2018-19 school year, six full classes of students took the class for a total of 173 students in grades 9-12, said Kelsey Usher, who taught the classes.
Offered as a choice for a foreign language credit, ASL has been so successful that another ASL teacher has been hired to help teach 114 students in ASL 2 and 143 students in ASL 1 this coming year, she said.
"Based on interest surveys we've taken throughout the year, we're excited to see ASL continue to grow like this," Usher said. "I have many students who are already considering including ASL into their adult lives, with some already planning a major or minor in it."
While Usher is a hearing ASL teacher, she said, she believes it's crucial for students to experience what the community calls "Deaf Space."
She said any time the word "deaf" is capitalized to "Deaf" it means she's discussing people who use sign language and identify proudly with the deaf community.
"There are many 'deaf' people who do not sign or get involved in the community just because they have hearing loss," Usher said. "This is an important distinction that is less commonly known."
She said in the presence of a deaf person, you don't speak if you can sign, because speaking would be excluding the deaf person, which is rude.
To employ that in her classroom, she uses a Voices On/Voices Off sign.
"I keep one on the door and one on the front board," Usher said. "When this sign says Voices Off on my door, students know that the moment they step over the threshold into my classroom, they close their mouths and use their hands.
"Voices Off is another way of saying, 'only use ASL' or other communication techniques like writing or finger spelling if they can't sign something, while Voices On means 'English and ASL permitted.' "
A typical day in ASL study means entering the room in Voices Off.
"We begin reviewing vocabulary from earlier in the week and then we jump into a new lesson," Usher said. "With the help of my Smart Board, I can teach new content without spoken English even on day one of the school year. Early on in ASL 1, I write a lot of information on the board. I'll sign and see if they can catch anything, and then click the board so students can read and fully understand."
As their ASL knowledge grows, Usher said, she puts fewer words on the board and more pictures, or she only signs the information and uses gestures to help remind them when necessary.
"A special thing about ASL classes is that they require 100% participation and focus every single day," Usher said. "If I teach a new sign, I signal for my students to sign it back. This is just like practicing pronunciation in any other language."
The act of making the sign helps make sure they're producing it correctly and it reinforces memory and understanding, she said.
"A very common misconception is that ASL is just English on the hands," Usher said. "As my students will explain, there's an independent grammar system for ASL and the language focuses on interpreting concepts instead of interpreting words. When we have lessons on grammar or culture, I often use Voices On to help students understand the lesson."
To raise awareness of the new program, Usher said, she asked students what they would like to do to celebrate the International Week of the Deaf, which was the last week in September 2018.
They planned two major activities for the week.
"The first was to paint their hands to represent the meaning of a sign," Usher said. "For example, they painted their hands to look like a turtle on the sign for 'turtle' or they painted their hands to look like little people on the sign for 'family.' "
The other activity was planning something called "Deaf for a Day."
"Many schools do this activity where students wear earplugs and don't speak for a school day," Usher said. "This helps ASL students get a better understanding of 'the deaf experience' in school."
Usher said she's excited to start an ASL club this coming school year with the new ASL teacher.
She said it will be a student-run organization, meeting biweekly to use the language, play games and get out in the community.
District Superintendent Steve Barrett said he loves how the ASL class came to be in the district.
"Part of our vision, mission and beliefs is that, 'When students are given a voice and a choice in their learning, they will yearn to lead and make the world a better place,' " he said. "The board listened to the voice of the students and decided to add an ASL class as a choice for a foreign language credit during the 2018-19 school year."
Barrett said the district is pleased with the course offering and even more thrilled that Gahanna has students who are confident and passionate enough about issues to gather data, present their cause and change the way things are done.
Olivia Michael said she's proud of helping get ASL offered as a class in the district, and she's in the process of searching for a career she enjoys.
"My dream goal is to be a representative for cochlear," she said. "That's my dream job."