Loudoun County public schools are considering adding American Sign Language to their list of languages offered to middle and high school students.

Several Washington area school districts provide some classes in American Sign Language, a visual series of symbols and gestures that is the dominant language of the deaf. But Loudoun would offer three consecutive years of high school study--now available in only seven high schools in Fairfax County.

No area district offers the language classes in middle school.

The Loudoun School Board is scheduled to vote Tuesday on the proposal. Chairman Joseph W. Vogric (Dulles) said the board, which first learned about the planned course offerings last week, is likely to support them.

"I think it would be very popular," Vogric said. "It opens up a whole new world of understanding special needs."

Betty Mar Little, the district's foreign language supervisor, said enrollment would be similar to the number of students studying Latin--about 125 in middle school and 300 in high school. Classes would be offered at the start of the 2000-2001 school year.

The cost to the school system would be mainly in hiring an undetermined number of instructors certified to teach American Sign Language, which will be a challenge because there are so few, Little said. She said the district will search for candidates among instructors who are deaf as well as those who can hear.

The district also offers language instruction in French, German and Spanish in middle and high schools. This year, school officials will study a proposal to begin foreign language classes, including American Sign Language, in elementary schools, Little said.

New state regulations passed last summer prompted the new courses. Virginia students can now take three years of American Sign Language to fulfill a foreign language requirement for an advanced studies high school diploma.

Previously, a student had to take two years of sign language as well as two years of another foreign language to earn an advanced diploma.

At least 11 of Virginia's 132 school districts include American Sign Language among their foreign language offerings, said Linda M. Wallinger, a specialist at the state Department of Education.

And that is expected to grow, mirroring national trends of the last five years, said William J. Newell, assistant professor of American Sign Language and deaf culture at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.

"You see it happening all over the country," he said.

Although some argue that sign language should not be considered a foreign language because it cannot be read or written, supporters say that American Sign Language has its own grammar, culture and form of visual literature in poetry, theater and storytelling.

Loudoun officials said that in the last several years, many parents have asked the district to offer American Sign Language.

"It is the beginning of learning a marketable skill," Little said. "Of course, you're not going to come out after three years and be an interpreter, but it can give you the basics."

Assuming that the Loudoun courses are approved, school officials will write the curriculum based on state guidelines. There is no Standards of Learning exam in American Sign Language.