The Lowcountry’s three biggest school districts are competing against more than 1,100 districts nationwide for a piece of $400 million available through a new federal grant.

Race to the Top

This is the first round of the Race to the Top District Competition, and up to 25 grant awards ranging from $5 million to $40 million will be made by Dec. 31. South Carolina didn’t go after funding in the federal Race to the Top competition that was available to states because state Superintendent of Education Mick Zais was opposed to expanding federal involvement. That didn’t affect this new district-level competition, and 14 South Carolina school districts have applied for the money. Local districts submitting applications were Berkeley, Charleston and Dorchester 2.

Charleston County schools submitted an application, and Berkeley and Dorchester 2 schools jointly submitted one in the country’s first Race to the Top District competition. The U.S. Department of Education received 371 applications for the funding that will go to classroom-level reform efforts.

Charleston asked for a four-year, $19.4 million grant to serve about 9,500 students in 19 high-need schools. Those schools include Burke, Stall and St. John’s high schools, and the elementary and middle schools that feed into them.

The district would use the funding to personalize learning environments, which makes classrooms more student-centered, said Alicia Kokkinis, Charleston schools’ grant coordinator.

“It’s a culture change for adults and for students, and it really is where education is going,” she said. “But we have to invest a lot of time in rethinking how we teach and how students learn.”

Berkeley and Dorchester 2 schools decided to apply together because it made sense, said Sean Alford, the Dorchester 2 assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. The need for these kinds of resources exists in both districts, and this would make it a regional grant, he said.

Their four-year grant request totaled $29.8 million, and middle and high school students in both districts — roughly 27,000 students — would benefit.

They would use the money to provide training for about 525 math and science teachers, and to offer them options for earning master’s degrees in math and science, he said.

“We’re just trying to help our teachers be stronger and better,” he said.

The grant also would allow Berkeley to expand its Middle College while starting one in Dorchester 2. The Middle College allows students to earn college credit while in high school.