The United States Tennis Association hopes to diversify the Charleston tennis community with a program aimed at youths.

The association awarded the Charleston County School District a three-year, $150,000 grant to provide tennis equipment and lessons to students during and after school. The money initially will benefit students who attend under-served schools, but it eventually will be distributed among more than 45 schools.

"It's definitely about access and opportunity," said superintendent and tennis enthusiast Nancy McGinley. "It's about getting a broader representation of our community involved in the sport of tennis as a lifelong pursuit. My ultimate goal is to see more diversity in tennis leagues across the state."

Charleston is only the second school district in the country to receive money for this kind of initiative. The national association targeted Charleston because its residents have been strong advocates for tennis and because the school district is interested in implementing this kind of program, said Barry Ford, the U.S. Tennis Association's director of outreach and advocacy.

The long-term vision is for every child in local public schools to have access to quality tennis education programs, but the short-term goal is to use the money to create a system that will enable children to continue taking lessons even after the grant money expires, he said.

"What we're trying to do is make an investment that's sustainable and lasting," he said. "The reason we're a partner (with Charleston) is because we share a common vision around this possibility for kids."

Last month, Charleston was named the Best Tennis Town in the country by the U.S. Tennis Association, and it received $100,000 for community-wide tennis programming or facility enhancements. The Lowcountry Tennis Association has given $10,000 of that award to Berkeley County schools to develop tennis programs for students, and those funds are separate from the grant secured by Charleston schools.

Charleston County schools had to match the association's $150,000 grant, and it's doing so mostly through in-kind contributions of staff members' time. The school district formed a partnership with the Lowcountry Junior Tennis Association, a nonprofit community group, to find after-school tennis instructors, distribute equipment and ensure the program runs smoothly.

Students will take lessons two days a week for at least an hour each day, and those started last week. An estimated 170 kindergartners through high school students are learning to play mostly in schools across the district.

McGinley has been trying for years to figure out how to get more elementary students, especially those from high-poverty homes, involved in tennis because it's difficult for students to compete on a high school varsity level unless they started playing at a younger age, she said.

Her hope is that the county eventually will have a tennis court complex designed for younger students, but at a minimum she'd like to see new elementary schools include an area for tennis courts, she said.

Pam Kusmider, president of the Lowcountry Junior Tennis Association, has visited area courts during the past week and said she's seen children excited about learning to play. Many of them had never even held a racket, and this is a chance to expose them to the sport, she said.

"I hope that we're going to see a change in the type of tennis player we see in Charleston," she said. "We're targeting those who would not ordinarily receive instruction, and that really is the focus of the (Junior Tennis Association)."

Reach Diette Courrégé at 937-5546.