Gullah/Geechee at Baptist Hill (copy)

Baptist Hill Middle-High School English teacher Michelle Govan-Seymore teaches her students on Friday, Nov. 18, 2016. School leaders at Baptist Hill say nearly all of the students speak some variation of Gullah or Geechee. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

The Charleston County School District soon will tune teachers' ears to pick up the distinctive patterns of Gullah and Geechee language, part of a larger effort to better educate students who speak it.

Catherine Hines-McCormack, interim arts and world languages coordinator, said the district plans to offer special courses for some of its teachers before the 2017-18 school year starts.

The goal is to help teachers understand and appreciate their students' home language, not to denigrate Gullah speakers, as some Lowcountry teachers have done in the past.

"We see it as a positive, but we know that historically it has not been viewed as a positive," Hines-McCormack said.

Working with Gullah and Geechee-speaking students is not just a concern on the Sea Islands or in other rural areas, where the Gullah culture took root before the Revolutionary War as enslaved West Africans blended their languages and culture into a new way of life.

Since beginning an inquiry last fall, school district staff learned that a Spanish-speaking Latina student had come to Stall High in North Charleston and learned a form of Geechee from the students there.

Indeed, linguists who study Gullah say pieces of the language have slipped into African-American Vernacular English across the country — but it remains the most concentrated in coastal areas of South Carolina and Georgia.

The school district started looking at ways to address the language needs of Gullah and Geechee students last fall at the request of school board member Michael Miller, who heard concerns that teachers from out of town had no familiarity with the local dialect or its history.

The district surveyed Hollywood-area teachers, and they reported that half to three-quarters of their students had some exposure to Gullah or one of the more Anglicized dialects known as Geechee.

At one school, Baptist Middle-High, Principal Vanessa Brown said all of her students speak with some form of Geechee influence, with the exception of some Spanish-speaking newcomers.

Hines-McCormack said she consulted with Herman Blake, executive director of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission. She also spoke with Jessica Berry, a language scholar at Columbia College who grew up speaking Gullah in Berkeley County's Huger community.

Berry forcefully opposed one early idea: She didn't think the district should hire an English for Speakers of Other Languages teacher to work with the students.

"In fact, this approach embodies a deficit perspective and will send a message to the community that their language and culture is broken," Berry wrote in a December op-ed in The Post and Courier.

Hines-McCormack said the district is not moving toward hiring an ESOL teacher at this time, in part because Gullah does not appear in federal guidelines identifying foreign languages. Instead, teachers will learn to identify the language and teach their students to code-switch — intentionally move from one way of speaking to another depending on the context.

This summer's professional development courses will be targeted at instructional coaches, early childhood and Head Start teachers, literacy coaches and interventionists, teachers who are using the Ready for High School curriculum, and teachers in Top Talent schools, according to Hines-McCormack.

Miller said the goal is to give every student an equal opportunity in the classroom.

"Not to minimize or diminish the history, culture and legacy of Gullah-Geechee — not at all — but we’re testing and educating in standard English," Miller said. "We need to make sure children have the best ability to achieve that."

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546 or

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.

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