What is American Sign Language?

Considered a backbone of deaf culture in the United States, American Sign Language is the predominant sign language of deaf communities in this country and English-speaking parts of Canada.

ASL uses signs made by moving the hands combined with facial expressions and body postures. It is distinct from English and has its own rules for pronunciation, word order and grammar.

The precise origins of ASL are not clear but may have arisen more than 200 years ago from the intermixing of local sign languages and French Sign Language.

Today, ASL includes some elements of French Sign Language plus the original local sign languages, which over the years have melded and changed into a unique language.

For more, go to www.nidcd.nih.gov or www.nad.org.

Sources: National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders and the National Association of the Deaf

The mostly silent but highly animated razzing among four deaf and hard-of-hearing high schoolers is interrupted by a teacher's question:

How much sign language do your parents know?

All four move their hands in the universal so-so gesture with facial expressions that indicate this to be a generous estimate.

It's why many students arrive here, at the Charleston County School District's Deaf/Hard of Hearing Program, without knowing a first language at all. Deaf children cannot learn English through hearing conversations. They learn what someone specifically tells them.

So they often come to the program, nestled within the Charleston County School of the Arts, armed to learn with only a smattering of English words and a touch of sign language.

Yet, language is the door to a world beyond oneself: a door to learning, to friendships and to experiences and ideas.

"Without language, you don't have concepts," SOA Principal Shannon Cook says.

At SOA, 14 deaf and hard-of-hearing students learn with each other and teachers who specialize in teaching them American Sign Language, the predominant sign language in the United States.

"They come to us with a mishmash of words," says Dean Walters, a teacher of the deaf for 30 years. "But if you have a language, you can learn a language. You have to have a starting point."

Today, the program includes two deaf students who just passed the entire standardized HSAP exam on their first tries, a rarity statewide in any year and a first in Charleston County. They credit their foundation in ASL.

Good move

When the program moved to SOA's North Charleston campus four years ago, it was largely a coincidence of space in the school's new building and the fact that it is a countywide magnet that houses middle and high schools. The program had been housed at Charlestowne Academy, which was closing.

It proved to be a uniquely beneficial move.

SOA students are selected from auditions to join majors in their arts areas such as dance, band and visual arts. They remain in school for an extra 90 minutes a day studying those majors.

So with the move a new major was born: American Sign Language and Deaf Culture, which taps the practical benefit of the extra school hours to learn ASL and receive extra help as needed along with creating a microculture that deaf students can call their own.

"You can make good friends here and learn a lot," says sophomore John Small, who wants to become an engineer and work at Boeing Co.

SOA already fosters creative personas proud of embracing each other's unique personalities and talents. Where better to embrace this unique culture as well?

"There is no stigma placed on kids who are hard of hearing. They can create and achieve and be normal kids in class with great success," Cook says.

An unscientific poll of its deaf students supports that assertion, although a few felt they were looked at funny when they first moved to SOA. One recalled earning the highest grade on her class's physical science final, thereby ending doubt if she could keep up with her classmates.

The benefits go both ways. A hearing student recently decided to become an interpreter after taking classes alongside deaf students. She will join their program as an intern next year.

And when the first deaf students graduated from SOA in 2010, the entire student body began the deaf applause of fluttering hands high up in the air as their deaf peers crossed the stage.

Plus, even the principal can sign at SOA.

Cook already knew English Sign Language, more of a direct word-for-word kind of signing. Now she's working on her ASL, which uses its own language constructs.

She demonstrates the word "path," a single word that describes all kinds of avenues.

However, in ASL the idea of a path can include various hand motions representing paths that travel in straight, rounded and zigzagging lines as varied as the actual paths in, say, life.

Language key

One of the deaf program's classrooms features a large mural with a stylized punching fist and the words "Deaf Power!"

Beyond it, Teacher of the Deaf Kathy Amick engages seventh-graders in an expressive analysis of "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi." Amick notes it is a fun story, sure, but one that illustrates larger concepts about the nature of revenge and evil.

"We'll tie that back in when we go back and talk about imperialism," she says as the bell rings for lunch. "Good work!"

In the program's other classroom, Walters works with a small group to boost their English reading skills.

Born to deaf parents, Walters grew up with ASL as his first language. He has worked with deaf and hard-of-hearing students since 1987, long enough to see far too many arrive at school proficient in no language and only to go home to relative isolation.

Also challenging is that the program's students are so diverse, from those who take rigorous courses with the general student body to those with multiple disabilities who take self-contained classes geared to their abilities and needs.

One middle schooler was adopted from a Chinese orphanage. She knows virtually no English or sign language. Another comes from a Korean language home. One just moved up from the deaf and hard-of-hearing elementary program nearby.

Yet, all are immersed in ASL during their school days. Once they excel at that, they can succeed in math and reading.

"You have to communicate on a certain level to understand what is going on in geometry class," says Tracy Duffy, teacher of the deaf. "If you can't communicate, you can't do anything."

Language also is why many students' closest relationships are within the program. One teacher signed the news of a grandparent's death when a student's parent struggled to do so. Another went with a student to a prom dinner.

"We really do have a communication with these kids that no one else has," Walters says.

All in the family

Despite an animated conversation, the room sits fairly quiet to a hearing person's ear.

Makayla Middleton and Alexandria Cavadias have been best friends since second grade. Their friendship has endured the normal tides of growing up.

Juniors now, they finish each other's sentences and have become role models. Both passed the entire HSAP exam on their first tries. They credit their foundation in ASL.

"ASL is our language, our way of expressing ourselves," Cavadias says, a teacher interpreting for a reporter.

And she's happy to use her language skills to call out younger students who need it and to encourage those who struggle.

"Often their parents don't know how to sign so we can help them," Cavadias says. "I'm their deaf momma!"

That means help with classes, and with life.

"We do go into that role of counselor, even parent," senior Dakota Cooper agrees.

The group explains how they act like a big family, texting and using Face Time and video phones for hours outside of school. They talk about school and friends and boys and girls and ways to deal with whatever life throws at them. Like any close friends.

"We really trust each other a lot," Cavadias says. "This is my second home. Being here can change your life."

Middleton laughs, nodding: "Yes, everything she said."

Both want to go to Trident Technical College after graduation to do their basic coursework. Cavadias is considering nursing. Middleton isn't sure yet.

Cooper, a goateed senior, grins sheepishly when a teacher asks if he has dated hearing girls. But he insists he isn't anxious to leave his deaf community.

"I don't really care to be hearing," Cooper says.

He's attended other programs but returned here in part because it is more academically challenging and the group more close-knit.

It's a common sentiment.

"I'm proud of myself and my culture," Cavadias says. "We are a family here."

The group members all signs their agreement.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.