"I am so excited," Superintendent Arlene Ackerman said Thursday. "We're really trailblazing here."
It's an approach supported by President Barack Obama, who has a goal of turning around 5,000 failing schools across the U.S. in the next five years. About $3.5 billion has been set aside for the effort this year through federal stimulus legislation.
Officials in cities including Chicago and Hartford, Conn., have already overhauled several schools. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a former Chicago schools chief, is widely known for reinventing several schools there through complete staff overhauls.
In Hartford, some buildings were given academic themes - such as Latino studies - and staff from custodians to principals had to reapply for their jobs. Since the changes two years ago, Hartford is no longer ranked last on Connecticut's standardized tests, Superintendent Steven Adamowski said Thursday.
"We've been able to demonstrate you can have high-poverty, high-performing schools, and that it is all in the design of the school," Adamowski said.
Still, he predicted Philadelphia officials would see resistance from stakeholders who consider such changes too drastic. The first wave of redesign in Hartford was "very, very difficult," Adamowski said.
Philadelphia, which has about 160,000 students in 267 schools, already faces urban challenges including poverty, violence and lack of parental involvement.
The committee that will help choose the inaugural cohort of redesigned schools met for the first time Thursday. Over the next several weeks, its members - teachers, administrators, parents and local advocates - will analyze data, examine proposed academic programs, and lead neighborhood discussions.
The chosen schools will continue operating normally this year. But behind the scenes, officials will be making academic plans and staffing decisions aimed at transforming each building in time for the first day of class in September 2010.
A spokesman for the Philadelphia teachers union did not immediately return a call for comment Thursday.
Obama has proposed $1.5 billion for school turnarounds next year. But so far, federal lawmakers have agreed to provide only about $500 million.