Charleston County school leaders were on the fence about whether to apply for a competitive federal grant, but they went for it because they said they believed in what the money would fund — personalized students’ learning.

It paid off Tuesday when the U.S. Department of Education announced that the district was among 16 applicants to win one of the first Race to the Top District grants. Charleston will receive $19.4 million during the next four years 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.

“What this grant truly is about is innovating and changing the way schools operate,” said Superintendent Nancy McGinley. “It’s not going to be the way it was when I went to school or when you went to school, because that is not how people learn. This grant enables us to redesign schools around what people need to be successful in the workplace.”

The winners were the top scorers among 372 applications, and they received between $10 million and $40 million each, depending on the number of students served. Nearly $400 million was awarded in this competition.

Charleston’s award is significant in that it puts the district among a small group of districts garnering significant national attention. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the competition set a high bar for applicants to meet, and winning applications demonstrated that they had the capacity to do difficult work and a track record of implementing reforms.

Districts have been hungry to drive change at the local level, and the winners showed “tremendous leadership” in plans to transform students’ learning environments, he said.

This award marks the second competitive federal grant Charleston has landed since September. The district also received a five-year, $23.7 million Teacher Incentive Fund grant to help recruit and retain high-quality teachers and develop a performance-based compensation system.

McGinley said receiving one major grant after another is a significant undertaking for the district, and she said it should help the district accelerate the rate of change and close its achievement gap.

“This district is on the cutting-edge of changing outcomes for all children,” she said.

The district plans to use the money to make classrooms more student-centered, which means students would have more responsibility for their learning. Teachers facilitate rather than dictate how students learn, and students can do a combination of independent work and project-based learning to show they understand the required lessons.

St. John’s High is among the schools that will benefit from the new funding. Principal Lee Runyon said he hasn’t gotten specifics on it yet, but he expects it to give the school the ability to sustain some of the efforts started as part of a separate, three-year federal School Improvement Grant.

The school has given its students iPads, and the Race to the Top money should help the school continue its use of coaching for teachers to ensure that technology is infused in lessons and students are challenged. The school saw its state rating move from “at risk” to “average” this year.

“We’re continuing to improve, and we’re refining the work we’re doing,” he said.

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