For six years Rhonda Leslie nurtured the American Sign Language program at Sunlake High, watching it flourish with students signing fluently in class and at school theatrical performances, commencement ceremonies and as ASL docents at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo and the Florida Aquarium.
More than a few students took a liking to the language, some going on to major in ASL, others taking it as a dual track in college. Some Sunlake alumni already have jobs in the field, Leslie said, while proudly pointing out their names and photographs on a on a classroom board — audiologist, speech pathologist, a couple of interpreters and a brand new ASL teacher pictured on her wedding day who just started her first year at a school in Winter Springs.
That's a lot to feel good about.
"I believe in ASL," said Leslie, who started out as a French major in college before becoming an interpreter for eight years and then going into the teaching field. "I love the people. I love the deaf culture. The language is beautiful."
Now Leslie is starting over as the ASL teacher for Wesley Chapel High's new program.
The fledgling program is the fourth to sprout for Pasco County students. Up and running programs are already housed at Land O'Lakes and Fivay high schools, in addition to Sunlake.
Wesley Chapel students Delaney Penn, 16, and Ted Willoughby, 16, were all smiles about the opportunity to fill graduation requirements with the visual language.
Penn was so eager to start that she spent her summer pouring over the ASL books that her parents purchased for her.
"I tried Spanish online and that didn't work," she said. "I'm really excited about this. The class is really good. There's never a dull moment."
Willoughby, who has his sights set on becoming a mechanical engineer, said the class might come in handy in the future and as a possible job opportunity, possibly as an interpreter while he works his way through college.
In the meantime, it's back to baby steps for Leslie and some 160 students who have spent the first weeks of school working through the manual alphabet, learning how to sign their own name and read basic words — bat, rip, pie — flashing across a computer screen.
In the coming months Leslie's students will carry on simple conversations. They will Skype with other students at Florida School for the Deaf and Blind and learn some of the different regional dialects while chatting with ASL students in Maryland and Long Island, N.Y.
"Right now they're just kind of getting their eyeballs revved up," Leslie said. "It's definitely different to have five classes of all beginners. But once it gets up and rolling, the enthusiasm and exhilaration will carry it on."
Leslie hopes to see ASL grow even further. A program in every Pasco County high school would be ideal.
"Hopefully with the success we've already seen at other schools and what we will see here (at Wesley Chapel) we'll see that expansion," she said. "I want them to see that. I want them to take notice."
Michele Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org