The University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University are in serious talks with the Philadelphia School District to jointly operate two small high schools in University City - the first venture of its kind for the district at the high school level.

The two schools - one focusing on international studies, the other on engineering and technology - would serve the University City High School area and eventually could be housed in that building once it is renovated.

Both school district and university officials say terms are being negotiated and subject to approval by the School Reform Commission, which could consider the project as soon as April.

The schools would open in September 2009 at the earliest, admitting a ninth-grade class and then adding a grade each year. One hurdle would be finding temporary space to house them during the renovations.

Penn first announced its desire to open an international studies high school in 2005, but negotiations lagged because of problems finding a site and school district money woes. Both sides are hopeful that the project can now move forward.

"We've had several conversations with Penn and Drexel. They are interested, we are interested, and that is why we are now pursuing it," Cassandra W. Jones, interim chief academic officer, said yesterday.

If approved, the two powerhouse universities would wade into one of the district's most intractable problems - how to improve dismal student performance in its high schools. At University City High, about three of every four 11th graders scored below basic levels on the state's reading and math tests, according to results from last spring. The school is one of the district's 70 lowest-performing schools, which have been targeted for overhaul.

Both Penn and Drexel are planning to work with students at middle schools to help prepare them for the curriculum. Drexel wants students to enter the high school with skills in math, logic and problem-solving, said William F. Lynch, the director of Drexel's School of Education.

"We're going to work with the feeder schools to make sure that we have bridging programs and that we're addressing this issue systemically," he said.

Around the country, a number of public high schools are operated by universities. Some are run independently as laboratory schools. Some are charter schools.

And some are run in partnership between the university and school district, such as Clark University's school in Worcester, Mass., which opened in 1997 and serves more than 230 students in grades seven through 12. The Thurgood Marshall College Fund, with funding from the Bill Gates Foundation, has established six high schools in partnership with public school districts and public historically black colleges. It's a model that the school district has looked at closely.

Next week, Penn and Drexel officials are to accompany school district personnel on a tour of University City High to help prepare their proposal. A meeting to announce the proposal to the community is planned tentatively for March 26, Jones said.

Each school would serve about 500 students, about 70 percent from the neighborhood and 30 percent from elsewhere in the city, Jones said. The school would be staffed by district teachers.

Jones said the district also was discussing the kind of resources each college could provide. Penn opened the Penn Alexander Elementary School in partnership with the district in 2001 and has provided a $1,000-per-student subsidy to the school, in addition to faculty assistance and other resources.

Extra money "is part of the conversation," Jones said.

While Drexel's Lynch said a specific per-pupil subsidy had not been discussed, he added: "We're planning to spend a lot of resources, staff time, faculty time, equipment, and to co-fund-raise with the district to place additional resources" in the school.

The universities also are looking forward to having students from their colleges of education intern at the schools.

Penn envisions a school in which students would study world languages, take an international curriculum integrated across subjects, and be connected to schools worldwide via technology. Students would be immersed in community service for groups with worldwide links, which could even include international internships, under plans first announced almost three years ago.

The university at one point submitted a charter-school application as negotiations with the district lagged, but the university would prefer a partnership with the district, said James Lytle, a former longtime school district administrator who now is a professor at Penn's Graduate School of Education.

"We want to have this as real as possible by early in the summer" to prepare for the fall recruiting season, he said.

At Drexel, Lynch said he hoped the partnership would prepare and encourage more students to attend colleges, such as Drexel and Penn.

"We have as a primary goal helping them make that connection from high school to post-secondary learning," he said.

Clark University allows any student who lives in the catchment area of its partnership school to attend college for free if he or she earns acceptance to Clark.

James A. Caradonio, Worcester superintendent, recommended that the school district try to negotiate a similar arrangement with Penn and Drexel.

"We called it the school with a promise, and that promise is still there," he said.

Contact staff writer Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or