Cindy Townsend couldn’t stay seated as she started talking about the importance of “getting it right” for her North Charleston Elementary students.

By the numbers

The following is a breakdown of the teachers in the Renaissance schools, which are Burns, North Charleston, Sanders-Clyde and Memminger Elementary.

Number of total teachers in 2012-13: 157

Number of teachers not returning in 2013-14: 65

Of those 65, number who resigned or retired: 20

Of those 65, number who transferred to another district school: 22

Of those 65, number whose contracts weren’t renewed (didn’t get a job): 15

Of those 65, number who were assigned to a long-term substitute position: 8

Number of new hires for 2013-14: 52

Number of first-year teachers: 23

Source: Charleston County School District

As her passion rose, so did she.

“We all want to be here, and we don’t want to let anyone down,” said Townsend, the school’s principal. “This is not business as usual. We have to do it differently.”

Charleston County school leaders feel confident in Townsend and three other principals of high-poverty, low-achieving schools. They allowed those four principals to handpick entirely new faculties for this school year.

The new staff is a critical component of the Renaissance schools project, a multipart, more-than-$1 million effort to improve the four schools.

Although it’s too early to say whether it’s working, analysis of the newly hired faculty showed more than 40 percent are first-year teachers.

That conflicts with what Superintendent Nancy McGinley said before they were hired, which was that she didn’t expect any first-year teachers to be selected.

She said last week that she’s not concerned about the number of new teachers, and she’s cautiously optimistic about the Renaissance schools.

“I do think we’ve put together the right process,” she said. “They have to implement it. They have to deliver what they’re trained to deliver.”

New teachers

McGinley created the Renaissance schools project, and it involves four schools: Burns Elementary, North Charleston Elementary, Memminger Elementary and Sanders-Clyde Creative Arts. All rated either “below average” or “at risk” on the state report card last year, and more than 95 percent of all students at each school live in poverty.

McGinley put together an improvement plan that includes hiring staffs of proven, dedicated teachers; providing 20 extra days of classroom-related training and team-building sessions; and giving teachers $1,000 for their professional growth.

First, school leaders wanted to make sure the right people were in classrooms. Research has shown teachers are the most important school-based factor in students’ learning, but high-poverty schools often don’t have the most qualified teachers. Schools where the majority of students are low-income often have higher teacher turnover rates, and they struggle to attract and retain the most effective teachers.

All teachers at the four Renaissance schools were invited to reapply for their jobs with the understanding that they would work a longer school year and have more responsibilities.

This isn’t the first time the district has tried to improve a school by changing its staff, but officials said they learned from the past and implemented a new, rigorous interview process that rated candidates on the same scale to ensure quality.

The four schools employed 157 teachers in 2012-13, and 92 were rehired for 2013-14. Of the 65 who weren’t rehired, some transferred elsewhere in the district while others retired or resigned. Still others were effectively fired.

Of the 52 new hires for this school year, 84 percent had less than five years of experience. Forty-four percent of the new hires were first-year teachers.

In April, before the teachers were hired, McGinley said she expected no first-year teachers to be hired, and she wanted experienced teachers who had a proven track record of success.

When asked last week about it, McGinley said she respected the Renaissance school principals and their judgment. They knew the demands of their schools, she said.

“When you are a principal, you want a good mix of experience because the young teachers bring idealism, enthusiasm and energy,” she said.

In addition, the process for selecting the first-year teachers involved some combination of: providing a writing sample, teaching a model lesson, or interviewing with a panel of experienced principals and administrators.

“It’s not just pulling someone in who is totally unexamined,” McGinley said. “The (teaching) teams were put together with care and deliberate, thoughtful planning on the part of the principal. They certainly have a lot at stake.”

Hiring the right staff

North Charleston Elementary had 34 teachers last school year, and 24 returned this school year. Townsend replaced some of her former staff with 12 first-year teachers, which was the biggest percentage of inexperienced staff among any Renaissance school.

Townsend said seven of those 12 are Teach for America corps members, and she’s a big proponent of that model. Teach for America is a nonprofit that takes ambitious college graduates of any major, trains them and places them in high-needs schools for two years.

Another four of the school’s first-year teachers were student teachers at North Charleston Elementary last school year, so Townsend said she saw them in action and wanted them on staff permanently. Some new staff also were vetted through the district’s Human Resources office, and Townsend trusted their assessment.

She said she wouldn’t trade any of her faculty. Finding the best teachers meant more than looking at their years of experience, she said.

“They truly want to serve the children of North Charleston,” she said. “I wanted people who wanted to be with our children and understood what’s going on with them.”

First-year teacher Julie Barone is among the Teach for America corps members who were placed in Townsend’s school.

Her voice scratched at times last week as she taught her second-graders a writing lesson. She said afterward she knew she was sick and planned to see a doctor after work, but she didn’t want to be absent.

“I feel like we all have the same attitude and ... everyone wants students to succeed,” she said.

More than people

Although personnel in the Renaissance schools are critical, Chief Academic Officer Lisa Herring said the project is more strategic than that.

The bulk of the additional funding going to these schools, roughly $819,000, is paying teachers to work 20 additional days this school year. That time has been used for training and team-building.

The school district spent an additional $17,000 to host a three-day training institute at West Ashley High before the school year started. Two national speakers spoke to teachers, and teachers attended sessions on issues such as student behavior management, parent engagement and data analysis.

Renaissance school teachers had seven additional days of team-building and school-based professional development before the school year began, and they will have 10 more training and joint meeting days as the school year progresses.

Barone said she felt closer to all the teachers on staff as a result of the trainings. If everyone works together, students will benefit, she said.

Herring said teachers will receive $1,000 and all other staff will receive $500 to put toward either graduate or online courses, conferences, professional memberships or professional reading materials.

Going forward

District leaders will be looking for improved student achievement in Renaissance schools, but they plan to establish some measurable goals to gauge the district’s return on its investment.

That’s important to county school board members, who said they want to be able to see the impact of this effort.

“This is a big investment for the district and one that is surrounded by optimism,” school board member John Barter told district officials recently. “It’s so important that we be able to measure its effectiveness.”

At North Charleston Elementary, Townsend and her teachers are making other changes to meet students’ needs. Townsend shifted funding to expand the after-school program to serve 178 of the most needy students in before-school and Saturday programs, too. Teachers are making home visits to families, and like other district schools, they are making positive phone calls to parents about their children.

“We work every day to make this a place where people don’t want to leave,” Townsend said.

School faculty are united on a mission, and Townsend said they are grateful for the support and the opportunity to move the school forward.

“We’re going to make a difference in North Charleston,” she said.

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