When principal Otis Hackney left district headquarters Tuesday morning, having just been told that South Philadelphia High would be turned into a "Renaissance school," he carried a box of letters to be delivered to teachers and staff.

The missives would alert them to dramatic, fast-approaching changes - and that their jobs were now on the line.

As Hackney walked into the school, a school police officer offered to heft the box.

"No," Hackney answered. "It's mine to carry."

He knew the box contained two guarantees:

A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to remake the staff at one of the city's most troubled schools. And months of wrenching upheaval for teachers and students at a place still in the first cautious steps of recovery from the anti-Asian attacks of Dec. 3, 2009.

In Philadelphia, a second wave of failing schools has now been handed the same rare hope and jarring uncertainty, chosen by Superintendent Arlene Ackerman to be restructured under her Renaissance model. Eighteen schools, 10 of them neighborhood high schools, will get an infusion of staff, resources, and funding. The district is promising the support even as it faces cuts to close a potential gap of $400 million in its $3.2 billion budget.

Most will get a change in principal - and at some schools at least half the teaching staff will be forced to leave.

"These schools are really under my very close watch and care," Ackerman said. "My support of their success is clear."

What's also clear: The climate surrounding education is changing, not just in the city or state but also across the country, as people tire of failure and question what they get for their tax dollars.

"The pressure from all levels, from both political parties, is to begin anew, to begin in a way that looks at what works for kids, not for the adults," said Erin Horvat, associate professor of urban education at Temple University. "It seems to me that the rhetoric now is less about 'Whose side are you on?' and, instead, 'We can't continue to have this many kids not graduating, not being able to read, not being able to do basic math.' "

In Philadelphia, while test scores have improved in recent years, many students remain woefully behind. For the 2009-10 school year, 50 percent of all Philadelphia students met standards in reading, and 56 percent hit the mark in math. The district's six-year graduation rate is 63 percent.

President Obama promised in his State of the Union address to "invest only in reform," and Education Secretary Arne Duncan supports closing chronically poor-performing schools.

Ed Rendell provoked an outcry for saying the Chinese would never have let snow cancel a football game - "they would have walked, and they would have been doing calculus on the way" - but his point was well-taken by many.

Students in China, South Korea, and elsewhere outshine Americans, driving parents to embrace something - anything - that looks as if it might work. Some say: If those models mean teachers get crunched, so be it.

Heck, forget competing with China, said the Rev. Leroi Simmons, long involved at Germantown High. The students he knows are struggling to reach average.

"In order for these students to have a shot at anything, this school needs to be shaken up to the core," he said.

The 18 schools were chosen for historically poor academic performance, violence, dropout rates, and neighborhood factors including unemployment and literacy. They join 13 schools - seven charters and six district-run Promise Academies - that already enforce longer hours and offer extras including social services, reading and math tutoring, and rich after-school activities.

Ackerman and her team cast the initiative as a moral crusade. "If these schools are underperforming, we're going to do something about it," said David Weiner, an associate superintendent.

But finding more dollars will be tough. The new Republican governor is determined to trim spending, the Republican legislature keen on vouchers and charter schools, which get less money per student than district schools.

Shelly Yanoff, director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, was skeptical that the city could draw more funding - but convinced that change must come. To those who say the pace is too fast and 18 schools are too many: "If I had a kid in one of those failing schools, you couldn't convince me it was too many."

But at South Philadelphia High, which has become a calmer, more orderly place under Hackney's leadership, people felt that all their effort and growth had been swept away.

Senior Duong Nghe Ly worried for teachers whose work helped him get accepted at the University of Pennsylvania. "They are pretty unsure about their careers," he said.

He wondered: With half the school year ahead, will teachers focus on students? Or on looking for jobs?

And what, others asked, of the Justice Department agreement that found the district was "deliberately indifferent" to violence against Asians? The section that required staff training on race relations won't mean much if that staff is in turmoil - or on its way out.

The tumult is not limited to Southern.

Brynn Keller, an English teacher at Audenried High in Grays Ferry, likes that her school will get more help - but questioned why a school she thinks is improving would be suddenly transformed into a charter.

"How can you continue to make progress if you're going to wipe away everything good that we've built?" Keller asked. "Is the idea a good one? Yes, but I don't think you should show up one day and say, 'Oh, we're going to change everything.' "

The district will still run 10 of the 18 schools, each with at least $1 million in new funding. The eight others will be given to charter organizations. That so many high schools were included shows the difficulty of fixing those schools, where achievement and graduation rates are low, violence and truancy high.

"I'm trying to look at this as a 'win' for my parents and my kids," Hackney said. "If I can figure out how to do this well, it could be a great, great opportunity."

Imagine: A chance to retain the top teachers, jettison the weak, add strong staff - and supplement that with a longer school day, Saturday classes, and more money.

But in the months ahead, Hackney, the only person in the building guaranteed to keep his job, somehow must motivate a disconcerted staff.

On Wednesday, as snow piled up outside, he summoned his assistant principals to discuss an early dismissal - but the talk quickly veered toward the tension teachers feel.

"Somebody ran out of their door and shouted, 'Is he going to keep me?' " assistant principal Cheryl Yancey-Hicks told the group. "I'm like, 'Honey, I don't even know if he's going to keep me.' "

The Renaissance Models

The Philadelphia School District on Tuesday announced 18 new Renaissance schools for September. They break down into four models:

Promise Academy model

A district-run school with no more than half the current staff retained. The principal can stay if he or she has been at the school two years or less. Teachers work one additional hour a day, plus two Saturdays a month and time in the summer.

Schools: Alcorn, Barry, Pennell, and Smith Elementary Schools; Fitzsimons, Germantown, and West Philadelphia High Schools.

Promise Innovation model

A district-run school where the principal remains and, along with the School Advisory Council, decides how many of the staff can stay. Teachers work an additional hour only three days a week, plus some summer time, and may choose to work some weekend hours.

Schools: Kelley Elementary School; Sayre and South Philadelphia High Schools.

Promise Neighborhood Partnership model

A charter school run with some district input. The district has already identified Universal Cos. Inc. as the charter provider.

Schools: Vare Middle School; Audenried High School.

Renaissance match

A charter school run by one of seven organizations, to be determined this year.

Schools: Birney and Clymer Elementary Schools; Gratz, King, Olney East and Olney West High Schools.


Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415 or jgammage@phillynews.com.