Sunlake High School sophomore Kat Whittington has personal reasons for wanting to learn American Sign Language: Her aunt is deaf and it has often been tough to communicate with her.
Kat's older sister, Jennifer, further sparked her interest by sharing things she learned in ASL classes at Sunlake.
But when Kat tried to enroll in the highly sought-after course, she couldn't get in. At Sunlake, as well as at Fivay and Land O'Lakes high schools, ASL has students on waiting lists.
"They were always full," she said. "So I asked to take it in eSchool and they let me."
This year is the first year that such an option existed.
After seeing the course's popularity and learning that no other online sign-language high school credit-bearing courses were available in Florida (or really anywhere else), Pasco eSchool principal Joanne Glenn decided to launch virtual American Sign Language herself. She conferred with local ASL teachers and saw that the course used technology such as Skyping and videotaping of lessons, suggesting that creating a full online course would be a logical next step.
"The longer we waited for someone else to solve the problem, there were more students who were denied the opportunity to learn this language," Glenn said. "We had the tools and the technology. The only thing holding us back … was us."
So the district's three full-time ASL teachers spent the summer creating an introductory ASL virtual course. They used local students to help record video lessons of how to sign the alphabet and some basic words, and crafted a curriculum using the textbooks they have for the classroom.
And they didn't stop.
"From there, we talked about what the future held," said Rhonda Leslie, who teaches ASL at Sunlake. "We started working on ASL II and III."
She expected those to be ready by the second semester.
After creating the virtual courses, though, none of the classroom teachers volunteered to lead them. None wanted to leave their existing students behind.
That's where Shasta Grimes fits in.
Grimes lives in DeSoto County, about two hours south of Pasco, where she had taught high school ASL courses until she moved temporarily to Broward County for a year. When she returned, her former high school hadn't found a replacement for her, so it replaced her entire course with French.
Still seeking a teaching job and wanting to remain in DeSoto, Grimes jumped at the opportunity to teach virtually. After winning the eSchool teaching post, she recorded her own lessons and began collecting video resources about deaf language, culture and community to share with her students.
She also came up with ways for the students to communicate with her via video, Skype, email and phone, so she could be available to them from afar and not have them feel like they're flying solo in a course that by its very nature requires human interaction.
"If you just leave somebody to learn with online materials, they don't always know the proper sign," said Grimes, who also has studied online education. "It's important to have instruction."
She expects the students to practice with one another and she will work to bring them together for some activities in the classroom or in the community as well. It will be clear whether they're learning, she said, because they'll have to demonstrate what they know visually.
Kat, who was able to complete three weeks of course work in her first week of online classes, said she enjoyed taking ASL online because the materials are interesting and she can do the work when she wants. She can log on in the school computer lab or at home.
When she has questions, access to both Grimes and Leslie is easy, she said.
Ridgewood High junior Tricia Johnsen said she appreciated that the course was offered through eSchool because ASL isn't available at Ridgewood, yet she had always wanted to communicate with deaf people.
The part about working at home was especially appealing to her.
"If you have to do it at school, it gets very distracting with all these people around you talking and giving you funny looks while you try to figure out how to sign 'How are you?'," she said via email.
Miko Sharkey, a Ridgewood freshman, said via email she likes taking online courses because she can get the work done faster than if she were in class. The lack of having immediate access to a teacher didn't bother her at all.
"It is pretty easy to reach her with questions. All I have to do is email her, which is pretty easy," she said, referring to Grimes.
The fact that eSchool could open this course to so many more students who want it was the driving motivation, Glenn said.
"I really believe students' course selection shouldn't be limited by geography," she said.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.