Burke High School teacher Abigail Lepsch guided her students through a math word problem that involved calculating a 10 percent discount on a $45 coat.

By the numbers


Number of applicants for Teach for America in 2012 nationally

Less than 15%

Number of applicants who were accepted


Average GPA of Teach for America corps members


Percentage of minorities in the corps

The cost

Charleston will pay Teach for America $240,000 over two years for 30 corps members, and up to $360,000 over two years to add another 45 corps members to district schools.

When Lepsch asked one student whether she should add or subtract to figure out sales tax, the student shot back, “Did you hear me say I don’t know?” Lepsch asked the question in a different way but didn’t get an answer, and she moved on to another student.

“Burke is a tough school sometimes, but I’ve gotten a lot of support,” she said later. “I’ve seen myself change as a teacher. And my understanding of the achievement gap — that’s what has grown most.”

Lepsch came to the downtown school as part of Teach for America, a national nonprofit that recruits bright, ambitious college graduates of all majors, trains them how to teach, and puts them in high-need schools for two years.

The group began working in South Carolina in 2011, and this is the first school year its teachers are in Charleston schools.

The county school board recently decided it wanted to increase the number of Teach for America corps members in its schools, and as many as 45 additional teachers will start a two-year commitment to the county this fall. That will cost up to $360,000.

Across the state, 10 school districts have agreed to pay the $4,000 per teacher annual cost to the nonprofit, and the nonprofit could expand to as many as seven additional districts this fall.

“Essentially, along I-95 from North Carolina to Georgia, there are districts that are asking for our teachers and have vacancies,” said Josh Bell, executive director for the state’s Teach for America program. “A number of districts have said they want our teachers, so the question is whether we have enough.”

Progress thus far

Local school leaders are optimistic about what Teach for America can do for the district’s schools, and county Superintendent Nancy McGinley said it’s one of multiple strategies to improve teacher quality.

“We talked about needing great teachers — smart people, people who work hard, and people who believe in kids and their ability to learn,” she told the school board. “That’s what we get with Teach for America.”

The school board agreed in 2011 to pay the nonprofit $240,000 during two years for 30 teachers. The district also pays teachers’ salaries and benefits.

There’s relatively little information thus far on the impact the nonprofit has had in Charleston. One of its 30 teachers has resigned, so officials compared 18 of the 29 remaining corps members with first-year teachers elsewhere in the county.

Their students had comparable results in English/language arts, but students in Teach for America instructors’ classes had worse math scores. Officials cautioned reading too much into the figures because of the small sample size and mid-year comparison.

Surveys of some county principals with Teach for America corps members in their schools yielded more positive results, with 85 percent saying they were above average when compared with typical first-year teachers. The same percentage also said they would be likely to hire corps members in the future.

Inside the classroom

Teach for America corps members are working in 12 of the district’s academically weakest and hardest-to-staff schools. At Burke High, Keysha Williams-Tolliver said she never had to worry about three of the school’s 18 new faculty members. Those three are from Teach for America.

“They came in, and it was ‘Show me my classroom,’ ” said Williams- Tolliver, Burke High’s associate principal of curriculum and instruction. “They took their space and owned it. They’ve known from Day 1 ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ ”

Lepsch, who graduated from Grove City College in Pennsylvania, was planning to go to medical school when she finished her Teach for America commitment. The last six months at Burke have made her reconsider, and she said she wants to stay in the field of education.

“It really has affected my long-term plan,” she said.

Down the hall from Lepsch is Kara Keale, another Teach for America corps member who’s teaching social studies. Keale works nearly 11 hours a day, and she has taken to heart the nonprofit’s emphasis on building relationships. She helped one student improve a 31 percent failing average to a passing D.

“Education is the way to really change the world and make a difference,” she said.

Sophomore Cronyn Wright is in Lepsch’s exit exam preparation class. He didn’t know which teachers in the school were from Teach from America or from a traditional education program, but he said Lepsch was helping him understand information that he had not before now.

“I think she wants what’s best for us,” he said.

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.