Just last year, a law was enacted that recognizes American Sign Language (ASL) as a world language for meeting high school graduation requirements in New Jersey. But in Ocean City, there already is an entire community of people who can communicate silently, and it is all because of what’s been happening in one classroom since 2004.
That’s when Amy Andersen started teaching ASL at Ocean City High School (OCHS). In her first year, she had just 42 students. Now, she teaches three levels of ASL to more than 150 students every day. Nearly single-handedly, she has created a network of students and alumni who can communicate with the deaf community in tourist hotspot Ocean City and beyond. Her efforts have helped produce a number of students who have gone on to pursue ASL-related careers; one former student, Megan Cinquegrani, even has interpreted for Michelle Obama.
“Amy was a wonderful teacher and I loved that she got so involved with us and had patience with everybody, no matter their skill level,” said Cinquegrani, who graduated from OCHS in 2006. “I never thought I’d be an interpreter, but now it’s my full-time job. I fell in love with the language and the community and didn’t want to leave.”
Another hearing student, Ashlyn Petro, who graduated from OCHS in 2016, was accepted at the prestigious Gallaudet University, the only liberal arts university in the world for the deaf; the university has only a five percent acceptance rate of hearing students. Petro is doing so well at Gallaudet University that this spring she will be eligible to register for junior-level classes.
Andersen has galvanized the entire Ocean City community into supporting her work with her students and those who are deaf. Annually since 2008, the students have created and performed an ASL show that raises about $2,000 per year for various deaf-causes. Earlier this year, the school invited a deaf artist to lead a ‘painting party,’ open to the community. Andersen also regularly co-hosts coffee-shop get-togethers with her students, alumni, and members of the deaf community to bridge the gap between the hearing and non-hearing.
“Ms. Andersen is a true teacher-leader and an outstanding ASL teacher. She regularly draws on an extensive repertoire of ASL skills and alternative activities to ensure student learning, and accommodates learning styles and uses various approaches to teach,” said Ocean City School District Superintendent Kathleen Taylor, Ed.D. “Ms. Andersen is to be lauded for all that she and her students have accomplished in ensuring that our deaf/hard of hearing community has a voice.”
In 2014, Andersen researched and attended training on the Seal of Biliteracy, bringing information back to OCHS. The Seal of Biliteracy (www.sealofbiliteracy.org) encourages schools, school districts, county offices of education or states to give an award to students who have attained proficiency in two or more languages by high school graduation.
She presented what she learned to OCHS Principal Matt Jamison, Ed.D., as well as the world language department, and OCHS became a pilot school for the program from 2014 to 2016. Earlier this year, state legislation was passed which enables students who receive the Seal of Biliteracy through diagnostic assessment testing to have a special marking on their diploma and transcript. In 2016, seven of Andersen’s students took the test, which is the same test college graduates take to become interpreters, and six earned the seal. Andersen remains the head coordinator for the program for the Ocean City School District.
Andersen has become a resource for school districts throughout the state and the country; administrators ask about her program and curriculum. For her work, she has received many awards and honors, from both the deaf and hearing communities, including 2015-2016 OCHS Teacher of the Year and ASL Teacher of the Year in 2014.
“There isn’t a huge deaf community in South Jersey, but Ocean City now is becoming known as a deaf-friendly town, because my students have been learning ASL,” said Andersen. “Deaf people are finding these students that can sign with them on the boardwalk or become their babysitters. We’ve got that connection with the deaf community and the students can learn to give back.”