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August 29, 2003

Show of Hands

From: Fort Worth Star Telegram, TX - Aug 29, 2003

Students in Arlington signal liking for a different language

Star-Telegram Staff Writer

Arlington High School teacher Shane Hensley rarely speaks to his students -- at least not the way most people speak.

As a sign language teacher, Hensley speaks with his hands.

"I almost can't believe I get paid to do this," Hensley said.

Hensley, 31, is the third sign language teacher to be hired for the district's young but growing program. It started as a pilot program last school year at Martin High School and has expanded to Arlington and Lamar high schools.

With a few exceptions, high school students are required to have two years of foreign language to graduate. In 1989, the state decided that sign language could count toward that requirement.

Since the curriculum is based on American Sign Language, it is not a foreign language, so the new term being used by educators is Language Other Than English.

"Students learn a whole new language just as they do in French or Spanish, so it's reasonable to allow sign language to substitute for foreign language," said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.

District officials are both pleased and slightly vexed by the popularity of the program.

"We have the potential for more courses, but we're not sure how many certified personnel there are out there," said Ron Durham, the district's art and languages other than English coordinator.

The program has more than 400 students -- more than half of them at Martin. Hensley teaches at Arlington and Lamar. Sharon Balthrop and Tammi Daniels are Martin's sign language teachers.

Balthrop said Martin, the Regional Day School for the Deaf that serves Arlington, has about 14 deaf students.

"Students here requested that we offer sign language so that they could communicate with the deaf students," she said. "Last year, I was the only teacher, but we've had enough interest to hire two more this year. It's exciting to see it grow."

The educators acknowledge that many students probably take the classes because they expect them to be fun or different. But they hope that some students will recognize the career opportunities and perhaps seek work as interpreters.

"There are lots of career opportunities," Hensley said. "Social workers or counselors often specialize in serving the deaf community. There's also opportunities as interpreters or even teachers."

Hensley notes that sign language might be easier for some students to learn.

"It's more visually oriented, so there are some students who will do better learning sign language," he said, adding that some of his students are in special-education programs.

Arlington High sophomore Dustin Lyons, 15, said he likes the way Hensley teaches.

"I thought it was going to be boring, but then I met the teacher and he's really cool," Lyons said. "I like how he says everything in sign language because you learn it really fast that way."

Lyons said he wanted to learn about deaf people and how to communicate with them. "My mom's boyfriend's grandpa is deaf," he said.

Because his parents and sister are deaf, Hensley was already a deft interpreter upon attending Abilene Christian University, where he received a bachelor's degree in Bible studies.

"There are four generations of deafness in my family," Hensley said. "In college, I didn't plan to interpret, but there were a few deaf students and I thought I can either deliver pizzas or interpret and make more money doing something I'm good at."

Hensley also teaches interpreting courses at Tarrant County College.

In a way, he said, he's come full circle. He also has a master's degree in business from the University of Texas at Arlington. He said he was miserable in the business world and wasn't ready to be a minister like his father.

"I always knew I would be a teacher," he said. "I just didn't know if I would teach business or Bible or sign language."

© 2003 Star Telegram and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.