Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
In the Lowcountry of South Carolina, the barrier island of Hilton Head is known for its luxury and exclusivity. Nearly 70% of the island lies behind gated communities, a land of plush golf courses, yacht clubs, and ritzy resorts.
The allure for tourists obscures other realities though, says Bruce Marlowe, education department chair at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort, the smallest of the state’s public universities with an enrollment of about 2,000 students.
A vast majority of the students at Hilton Head’s public K-12 schools are from low-income Hispanic families. Many students — as well as those in and nearby vacation hotspot St. Helena Island — are Gullah/Geechee, the descendants of formerly enslaved Africans who settled in coastal islands from South Carolina to Georgia and Florida.
Marlowe is the lead investigator of the federal $5 million Teacher Quality Partnership (TQP) grant meant to recruit and retain 100 diverse teachers to 21 schools in sprawling Beaufort County, which includes Hilton Head and St. Helena, and is one of the most rural counties in South Carolina.
Him and his coworkers executing the grant face a unique challenge. Nearly three quarters of the students in those schools are living below the poverty rate.
There are linguistic barriers, too: 4,000 of their 20,000 students speak Spanish as their first language, Marlowe says, and that doesn’t even include the number of Gullah/Geechee students whose households speak their own distinct American Creole dialect.
“That presents all kinds of problems for the teaching staff we have, and the teaching staff we’re trying to develop,” Marlowe says.
The challenges facing South Carolina’s Lowcountry is one echoed across America, as rural regions struggle to attract and retain teachers whose linguistic and cultural competencies match the students they teach.
Research has shown that teacher turnover is substantially higher in K-12 schools with higher percentages of low-income students and students of color, with a 2017 Learning Policy Institute report showing turnover was highest in Southern and Western states.
Teachers of color only accounted for about 18 percent of America’s public school teachers in 2018, significantly outpaced by the growth of students of color, who now make up a majority of the American public school system and will only grow as the United States is predicted to become majority non-white by 2045.
That matters, particularly when considering the increasing body of research suggesting that students of color perform better when they are taught by teachers of color at some point during their academic careers. Those who don’t may face more instances of implicit bias, lowered expectations, and a lack of empathy toward their cultural experiences.
I’ve written before about the work of education departments at tribal colleges to create new pipelines for culturally-responsive programs and educators. USC-Beaufort’s work to serve the teacher shortages facing its Hispanic and Gullah/Geechee neighbors also merits a deeper look.
Building a Community Pipeline
In 1862, three years before the Civil War ended, and before the Emancipation Proclamation had even been signed, the Freedmen’s town of Mitchellville, S.C. became the first self-governed town of formerly enslaved people in America.
Education was key to the community from its very beginning: Historians say its compulsory education law for children between 6 and 15 was likely the first such law in the South.
More Rural Higher Ed News
Mental health support needed. A Washington State University study found that proportionally fewer rural schools had the ability to diagnose students’ mental health issues compared to urban schools. Obstacles included a lack of funding and access to qualified mental health professionals. One strength of rural schools? The study found that they were 30% less likely than urban schools to cite a lack of community support as a barrier.
Grow-your-own nurses? This Hechinger Report piece details the work of Eastern Maine Community College to address the state’s significant health worker shortage, via a partnership with various rural hospitals.
Cost deepens the digital divide. VPN service company Surfshark’s recently U.S. Internet Value Index found that 3 of 4 rural U.S. states have overpriced internet — while 3 of 4 urban states get “fair” internet prices. That matters for rural students, as studies have found that those without it were generally half a grade point behind their connected peers, with ripple effects that researchers said “may last an entire life.”
Today, Mitchellville is more historic site than true town, a wetlands park with self-guided tours and occasional events and exhibitions. However, its Gullah/Geechee population has since spread throughout the South Carolina coast — even if the exact number of students from that cohort isn’t always clear, Marlowe says.
“The way the district counts multilingual students, those kids aren’t counted,” the USC-Beaufort education psychology professor says.
That definitional problem is just one of many challenges Marlowe faces in fulfilling the federal TQP grant, which seeks to add 100 new county teachers, particularly in critically short areas such as early childhood education, STEM classes, special education, and early childhood education.
Reaching that goal will require traversing distances both culturally and geographically vast.
USC-Beaufort is using the grant to work with Mitchellville to provide professional development (through graduate coursework and summer institutes) for teachers serving the Gullah-Geechee community, as well as adding coursework on the Gullah/Geechee experience.
It also plans to create peer and community affinity networks to support teacher candidates embedded in the 21 at-need schools across the nearly 600 square miles that make up Beaufort County — a challenge that would stretch the limits of USC-Beaufort’s six-person faculty without support from other mentors.
“You can’t supervise more than four student teachers realistically per semester, since you’re going to need to visit each of them 4 or 5 times,”
Retention can be a struggle: The education department at USC-Beaufort starts with 60 to 70 teaching candidates in a cohort, but typically ends up graduating 30 to 40 of them.
The program often loses students due to “all of the usual rural poverty reasons,” Marlowe says, such as the difficulty of finding reliable and affordable transportation.
However, those who do graduate are much more likely to stay in the Lowcountry, making them a key educator pipeline for the entire region.
While USC-Beaufort may be small, its community ties often allow it to attract more local students already familiar with the culture, a strength many regional colleges are working to harness in their attempts to help drive more teachers of color into the profession.
“The idea is to support high school students on their way to becoming teachers and, perhaps more importantly, support them once they are in-service teachers through this cultural diversity lens,” Marlowe says.
This article first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered to your inbox.