Charleston County schools are one step closer to a nearly $20 million federal grant that would help it change the way students are taught.

The school district was named Monday one of 61 finalists in the first-ever federal Race to the Top District competition.

The U.S. Department of Education grant program will offer nearly $400 million split among 15 to 25 winners to support locally developed plans to personalize education for students.

Charleston applied 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.

Officials have said they would use the funding to make classrooms more student-centered, which means students would have more responsibility for their learning. Melissa Matarazzo, the district’s executive director of achievement and accountability, announced the district’s status as a finalist during the county school board meeting Monday night and received applause.

“We think our odds are favorable,” she said.

The federal awards will range from $5 million to $40 million, depending on the population of students, and winners will be named by Dec. 31.

“These finalists are setting the curve for the rest of the country with innovative plans to drive education reform in the classroom,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a press release.

Charleston was the only South Carolina school district to be named a finalist among a total of 372 applicants. Thirteen other South Carolina districts, including its neighbors of Dorchester 2 and Berkeley, also had applied for the funding.

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter.