Appoquinimink School District is currently the only district in the state to offer American Sign Language as a world language course at both the middle and high school levels.
At times, barely a word is spoken in Toni Hvizdzak's classroom at Louis L. Redding Middle School, even as she provides instruction and takes questions from students.
Yet her hands never stop moving.
"You'd never think a classroom full of sixth, seventh or eighth graders could be so quiet, but communicating without speech is sort of the point," said Hvizdzak, who is one of five American Sign Language (ASL) teachers in the Appoquinimink School District.
Appoquinimink is currently the only district in the state to offer ASL as a world language course at both the middle and high school levels.
And its popularity among students has grown exponentially since it was first offered five years ago, according to Raymond Gravuer, the district's curriculum director for grades 6 through 12.
For instance, nearly 160 Appoquinimink High School students enrolled in the Level I ASL course last year, while this year more than 250 students at Appoquinimink and Middletown high schools will take the course.
Spanish is still the most popular world language among students, followed by French. But ASL is now third, ahead of both Chinese and Japanese in terms of student enrollment.
That enrollment is expected to continue growing next year, when the district adds Level IV classes at both high schools.
"We put a lot of focus on getting our students to become bilingual learners and ASL is just another opportunity for kids to learn a language that's used by a whole population out there that many people might not even take into account," Graveur said. "It also provides students who aren't necessarily auditory learners a chance to connect with a uniquely kinesthetic language."
ASL also is becoming one of the most popular languages at colleges and universities throughout the nation, according to the latest Modern Language Association Survey.
As of 2009, it ranked fourth in terms of student enrollment, with more than 91,000 ASL students nationwide – a 50 percent increase over the past decade.
Some attribute the language's rise in popularity to the U.S. American Disabilities Act of 1990, which required hospitals and other institutions to provide effective communication for the deaf and hard of hearing, thereby opening the door to ASL-related jobs in health care, education and other fields.
But Hvizdzak – a former ASL interpreter in Washington D.C. – says misconceptions about the language still persist.
"A lot of people think it's easier than a foreign language, but it's not just gestures and charades," she said. "It has its own grammar, structure and rules, as well as past, present and future tenses, just like any other language. It even has its own dialects."
Christine Sharkey, the ASL teacher at Appoquinimink High, said the program is also about more than just language.
"We also teach students about deaf culture," she said. "It's about teaching people how to interact with people and become accepting of others in general, because ASL isn't used by just the deaf. It's also used by people with speech disorders, autism and Down Syndrome."
Austin Wiant, an eighth-grader at Redding Middle School, said he plans to be a marine biologist, but still wants to continue studying ASL through high school.
"It's definitely the most fun language to learn and you can talk to your friends without saying a word," he said. "Plus, at some point, if I meet a deaf biologist, I'll be able to help interpret what they're saying to the other scientists. That's pretty cool."
Meanwhile, classmate Jessica Grant said she'd like to turn her ASL studies into a career.
"There are a lot of things you can do with it, like be an interpreter or a teacher," she said. "I've only been taking it for a couple years, but the other day I met a deaf person in an elevator and I was able to say, 'Hi, my name is Jessica and I'm learning sign language.' How many other kids my age can do that?"