For many of its 97 years, West Philly High has struggled with two conflicting identities - one as a neighborhood version of an Ivy League institution producing corporate and political bigwigs, the other as a detention center for troublemakers setting fires and starting fights.

But starting tomorrow, a group of students, education and community organizers hope a dramatic new chapter of the school's history will be written.

The groundbreaking for a new building - and some say new hopes and expectations - is scheduled for today at 9:30 a.m., 49th and Chestnut streets, blocks away from where the other still stands.

"There are combatting histories in the old building, but in the new building we can set a new precedent," said Phillip Pearce, a West Philly High alum and staff member for the Philadelphia Student Union. "It's a blank canvas [on which] we can paint a beautiful portrait."

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman and other leaders will join students to commemorate the start of construction.

The new structure is slated to open next fall.

The building of West Philly High is one of the final projects under former schools chief Paul Vallas' $1.5 billion capital building project.

At the start of the school year, the district unveiled the state-of-the-art makeovers of two neighborhood high schools, Fels and Lincoln.

Construction of the new school is expected to start late next month.

The facility, on 4 1/2 acres, will replace what was West Catholic High School for Boys and will boast state-of-the-art classrooms, science labs, auditoriums and a library.

Two gyms and art and dance studios will also be housed inside the 72,000-square-foot, three-story edifice.

The project is estimated to cost $66 million, but for Dobson what the school symbolizes - the gathering of people from the school and the community with a common goal - is priceless.

"The building is a testament of the power of young people," said Khalif Dobson, a senior at the school.

"We wanted community involvement and the students to reclaim their education." Dobson is to speak at the ground-breaking.

The road to improvement had not been without its obstacles, said Eric Braxton, of the Philadelpha Education Fund, who works closely with the student group in West Philly.

In the '90s, the school became known for a rash of fires set inside the building, while riots and fights were commonplace. Academically, the school still struggles, having missed the mark for adequate yearly progress for many years.

The school also bears the tag of being "persistently dangerous," having made the state's list for the last several years, despite a slight decrease in the number of serious incidents that lead to arrests.

But now with the support of a relatively new principal, Saliyah Cruz, 37, who divided the school into four academies - addressing performing arts, urban studies, business, and one for freshmen - the school is ready for a new era, Dobson said.

"The fight is nowhere near over," he said.

"A new building doesn't mean education will be perfected."