Sign of the times: More Catholic schools offering American Sign Language courses

Across the Archdiocese of Detroit, more and more Catholic schools are offering American Sign Language as an elective or to fulfill language credit requirements. The course allows students such as Megan Dean (pictured) to see life from the perspective of those with different abilities. (Photos by Valaurian Waller | Detroit Catholic) 

Detroit-area grade schools, high schools offer elective as a way to teach students to 'greet one another with love'

METRO DETROIT — Schools throughout the Archdiocese of Detroit offer a variety of language classes, ranging from popular courses such as Spanish and French to the lesser taught, such as Greek and Chinese. 

But a growing trend has seen more and more grade schools and high schools offering American Sign Language courses as electives or to fulfill language requirements.

Grade schools such as St. Joseph School in Lake Orion and St. Isaac Jogues School in St. Clair Shores have begun offering the course online to interested students. 

St. Joseph offers sign language classes through a partnership with the Oxford Virtual Academy, which is associated with the public school system in that neighboring town, said Joe Zmikly, principal of St. Joseph School. 

Chelsea Cleghorn teaches a class in American Sign Language at Bishop Foley High School in Madison Heights on Jan. 16.

“The hope is that [students] would find a lot of meaning in and use it in their own lives, whether they have someone in their family who is hearing impaired, or whether they want to go down a career path with it,” Zmikly told Detroit Catholic. A few students are currently enrolled in the course, which is now only available to eighth-graders as an elective, Zmikly said. 

This kind of language course helps students experience and be prepared for “the real world,” he added.

When Bishop Foley Catholic High School in Madison Heights four years ago was re-evaluating its language courses, the school tested three new options to gauge students' interest: Latin, Mandarin Chinese, and American Sign Language.

“The only one that brought in enough students registering was American Sign Language, so we went ahead and ran that,” said Frank Accavitti, principal of Bishop Foley.

Though it started as only an introductory class, four years later the program has extended to include American Sign Language I, II, and III, and has a full-time teacher. Austin Catholic High School in Chesterfield and Gabriel Richard High School in Riverview also offer American Sign Language courses, and Madonna University in Livonia, a four-year public Catholic college, offers a bachelor's degree in Sign Language Interpreting Studies.

Garrett Schwartz, right, and Marlow Maqdasi sign during class at Bishop Foley High School in Madison Heights.

More than 100 students are registered in Bishop Foley's sign language courses, and several seniors are looking to major or minor in fields related to assisting and working with the deaf and hard-of-hearing. The classes begin with a prayer, and, along with learning the mechanics of the language, students learn about the deaf community as a whole, Accavitti said. Students have also signed the Our Father at school Masses.

“The parables we hear in Mass and analyze in theology (classes) encourage a world where we greet one another with love, above all,” Accavitti said. “American Sign Language is the start of an outreach to all people who may be differently abled, beyond the deaf and hard-of-hearing community, to look at the way in which God unites his people even when they have differences.”  

The teaching of these classes finds unique expression in a Catholic environment and through the Catholic lens, Accavitti said.

“These courses allow students to see the gifts that God bestows among those that some may have otherwise called disabled,” he said.

Fr. Tony Richter, spiritual director at Bishop Foley and pastor of Guardian Angels Parish in Clawson, calls the course “a ministry of a language.” 

Zmikly echoed the sentiment.

“The Gospel is for everybody,” Zmikly said. “It’s not just for anyone who can hear or see or run, jump, or climb. It’s for everybody. The more ways we can give kids tools to reach others, the better.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Gabriel Richard High School in Riverview.