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When Marianela Rosario first started class as a sixth grader at Hannah Penn K-8 she was unable to understand the discussions and conversations taking place around her.

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Rosario's family had moved from the Dominican Republic to York City when she was 12 years old, and she didn't speak a single word of English.

"Of course that's going to be really hard, especially when you're in middle school," Rosario now 24, said, adding her transition was eased however, by the teacher she was matched with through the school's English Language Learner (ELL) program, Lynne Lenker.

"I was really lucky, she was just a really great teacher," she said of Lenker, who still works in Jackson's ELL program.

Rosario made her way through the program, in 2009 graduated from William Penn and then moved on to study Spanish at York College.

But she didn't stay away from her home school district for long.

Rosario on Monday was splitting her time between ten or so students in a ninth and tenth grade math classroom at Hannah Penn High School, making sure they grasped the concepts of numeric variables and the math equations scrawled out on the whiteboard, in spite of the language barrier they were facing.

Nearly two months ago, Rosario accepted an ELL teacher's aide position at William Penn High School and works with students in situations very similar to what she herself experienced when her family first moved to York.

The program: Out of the 1,190 students enrolled at William Penn, 289 or nearly a quarter of them are a part of the ELL program, said Deborah Hioutis, York City School District's Special Programs Coordinator.

District wide, approximately 25 percent of students are enrolled in the ELL program with the biggest populations at Jackson and Hannah Penn, Hioutis said.

"We have students come to us ranging from totally non-English speakers to some who are a little more advanced and just need to work on their reading or writing," she said.

Teaching models vary depending on the building, grade and language level of the students, Hioutis said.

"There's no one type of instruction," she said. "They give the students the additional support to help them through their instruction, they help them finish activities. There's also a lot of collaboration with the (general education) teachers."

Rosario said she's been able to pull from her own learning experiences to help her students.

"I'm able to explain to them how I learned something and I'm able to connect the dots that way," she said. "I like that I can go back and think about things that way for them."

Students also have access to after school tutoring every Tuesday and Thursday, and additional programs over the summer and the weekend.

In order to exit the ELL program, students must score at least a five on the final level, tier C, of the ACCESS exam — an adaptive assessment administered across the country that gauges ELL students' growth and progress — score at least at the basic level on their math and reading PSSAs and either earn a final grade of a C or better in the core subjects or have scores on district-wide assessments that are comparable to the basic performance level on the PSSA .

Language: Within the program there is a variety of native-languages within the ELL student population. While the most common is Spanish — of which there are several variations — Hioutis said there are probably somewhere around ten languages represented including Creole, Gahn, Cambodian and Haitian.

Rosario said one of her students is from Thailand.

"There are a lot of days I'm grateful for google translate," she said with a laugh.

ELL teachers, while they are not required to be bilingual to teach, must be certified teachers and take 10-15 additional credits specific to ELL to become certified, Hioutis said.

"You can have that certification, but you also have to be passionate,"  Hioutis said. "ELL teachers are some of the most creative  teachers you'll ever meet. They find so many ways to reach out and teach their students, they really have to think outside of the box to communicate a certain topic at times."

Hioutis said teachers do everything, from having their student draw instead of write an essay to using videos and hand signals to communicate. One of her favorite approaches was when a teacher created a board game with PSSA-inspired questions.

"We really do have the best ELL teachers in the county," she said. "They just go above and beyond for their students, and you can tell a lot of them get very close."

Rosario still sees her former teacher from time to time.

"I'm always excited to see her," she said. " I still even call her 'Ms. Lenker.'"

Relating: "My favorite part is being able to relate to these students," Rosario said. "I like that they can look at me and see that I did it and I think that helps them feel like they can too."

Rosario said she is looking to become a certified ELL teacher in the down the line.

"I really love it," she said. "I love that I got to come back here, I love this school system and I love being able to relate and help the kids."

Hioutis said it's always a treat to see a student be successful.

"We're all just really proud of Marianela," she said. "My favorite part of working in this program is just seeing our students succeed, the smiles on their faces when that light bulb goes off, it's really special. These kids really do have a lot to offer and we just have to show that they can."

— Reach Jessica Schladebeck at jschladebeck@yorkdispatch.com.

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