PLAINFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Education for deaf and hard-of-hearing students — and students who want to learn American Sign Language — has come a long way in the last few decades, but instructors and administrators think we have still have a long way to go.

In 1986, about 1% of high schools in the country offered ASL classes as a foreign language credit. An effort in the 1990s and early 2000s to create academic guidelines for ASL, using deaf instructors and ASL-trained teachers, has made a huge difference.

As Mark Thomas, the principal of Northview High School, explained, ASL is now the second most popular foreign language among students in his district.

There are more than 225 students in Kent County who are deaf and/or hard of hearing, according to Paul Dymowski, director of center programs and services for Kent Intermediate School District. Northview High School serves a diverse cohort of deaf students, and it’s also a hub for Kent ISD’s Total Communication Program.

According to Dymowski, Kent ISD offers two main programs: the Total Communication Program, which focuses on ASL, and the Oral Deaf Program, which focuses on listening and language skills.

Thomas acknowledged the value of these courses but told News 8 of the formidable challenge of securing qualified instructors. He described it as akin to “finding a doctor or a nurse in a certain specific type of medicine.”

“One of our teachers that we’re using in this position right now has taught at the community college for years, but he can’t get his high school certification,” Thomas said.

According to Dymowski, Michigan does not have a university with a program that offers a deaf education certification. As a result, most of Kent ISD’s teachers are hired from beyond the state of Michigan or through the Michigan Department of Education’s Consortium for Teacher Preparation.

Thomas said the state of Michigan is actively working to streamline the certification process for individuals transitioning from different fields into teaching roles.

Dymowski said Kent ISD currently has the teachers certified in deaf education it needs but anticipates needing more next year. In addition, the district has 21 ASL interpreters and is looking to hire more. Depending on whether they are ASL instructors or Deaf and Hard of Hearing instructors, teachers must fulfill different requirements.

Rowan O’Dougherty, Northview High School’s only deaf teacher, told News 8 that it’s important to have deaf educators in ASL and Deaf and Hard of Hearing programs.

“Deaf individuals bring a unique perspective and a deep understanding of ASL as their first language,” O’Dougherty said, adding that this perspective holds the potential to be profoundly transformative — not only benefiting deaf students but also fostering inclusivity by engendering empathy and comprehension among all students.

Thomas agreed and stressed the overall need for diversity in teaching staff, transcending the Deaf community to encompass educators from diverse ethnic backgrounds.

Beyond giving students the opportunity to acquire a valuable second language, the ASL program also fulfills the requirements for second language credits in the Michigan Merit curriculum.