Abner Altamirano carries an English dictionary nearly everywhere he goes.
That's the advice he got from his favorite teacher, Elaine Acevedo, after he moved to Rock Hill from Mexico last year speaking only a few words of English.
Today, Abner scores As and Bs.
"Before I came to (her) class, I was very nervous," said the 13-year-old. "I couldn't think or speak. Now I feel better. I can speak more with teachers."
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Acevedo is responsible for 80 Sullivan Middle School students who, like Abner, face a language barrier. Since 2005, the number of students with limited English proficiency in Rock Hill schools has ballooned 70 percent, to 755 students. They hail from 33 countries and speak 27 different languages. Most of them -- 85 percent -- are Latino.
Acevedo is one of the district's 13 teachers who specialize in "English for speakers of other languages," or ESOL.
"It would be great if the funding was available to have someone for all of our schools," said the district's ESOL coach Gail Rogers. Instead, some ESOL teachers have to split their time between schools.
Their job is to help students learn English well enough to succeed in other subjects. They also work with teachers to make accommodations. For example, a student might get extra time to read a book or fewer answers to choose from on a multiple-choice test.
"It's a difficult thing to be an ESOL student," Rogers said. "It wears them out just to have to listen to a new language all day."
Some 5 million students in the U.S. are classified as "English language learners." More than 25,000 of them are in South Carolina.
A report by Education Week magazine, released this month, found that 72 percent of students in South Carolina schools made progress last year on English proficiency tests. That's higher than the national average of 34.4 percent.
Acevedo teaches four classes of nine to 12 students for 45 minutes a day. Other students, who scored closer to proficient on an English language test, check in with her throughout the school year so she can track their progress.
Acevedo employs a mix of teaching techniques and fresh ideas.
Her aim, she said, is to immerse students in English with lessons that interest them.
"I'm trying to get them to be less intimidated by the language," she said. "Whatever they're doing in their (other) classes, I incorporate."
For Hispanic Heritage Month, she had students design brochures promoting places outside of their home countries. They researched countries and illustrated the brochures, then presented them in front of classmates and principals.
Acevedo said she strives to keep a running dialogue going in class. She calls out questions and students chime in. When an eighth-grade student answered in Spanish one afternoon, Acevedo pushed him to speak up in English.
Her approach has won over students.
"She makes it fun," said Luis Mata, 13. "She gives us examples about her life. She makes us want to laugh."
Acevedo calls her biggest project "Middle School Myths."
With a $1,000 grant from the Rock Hill Schools Foundation, she and Sullivan media specialist Betty Jordan bought two video cameras, three microphones, mythology books, graphic novels and dictionaries.
She had students write their own plays for practice. Then they read the Greek tragedy Narcissus, which they converted into a play. Next, they filmed themselves performing the play.
Jordan trained them on film production software, which they used to edit the footage, add music and post it online.
"Everything I do is sort of to get them out of their comfort zones and make them into presenters," Acevedo said.
All of the students, she said, have made strides.
"Once upon a time, they were inhibited by other kids," she said. "They didn't want to get made fun of ... and I don't blame them."
One afternoon, Abner stopped by Acevedo's room during lunch hour to chat.
He and his classmates often do that because she's the "best teacher," he said.
"She's," Abner paused to rifle through his dictionary. "She's passionate with us."