They come from vastly different backgrounds - the U.S. secretary of education, a Democratic civil-rights activist, and the Republican former House speaker - but they all agreed that what they saw yesterday at two Philadelphia schools could be a national model.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the Rev. Al Sharpton, and Newt Gingrich toured Mastery Charter School-Shoemaker Campus and McDaniel Elementary on the first stop of a multi-stop tour promoting education improvements.

"Philadelphia, I think, is really at a fork in the road," said Duncan, who formerly ran Chicago's public schools. "Philadelphia has a chance to lead the national conversation in education."

Gingrich and Sharpton agreed.

"After visiting these two schools today, I am more inspired and encouraged than I have been," Sharpton said. "It's a breakthrough moment."

The trio started their day in West Philadelphia at Mastery-Shoemaker, a seventh- to 12th-grade school converted from a failing public school in 2006.

Educating the same students in the same building, Mastery-Shoemaker has soared, with big jumps on state test scores and a sharp decline in violence. The school's eighth-grade students outperformed suburban schools in math, for instance.

Students have longer days (from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.), attend school on Saturdays, and learn problem-solving and social skills. They sign contracts promising to work hard and stay out of trouble; their parents sign pacts agreeing to be involved.

Listening in on Nadirah Sulayman's 11th-grade community circle, the high-profile trio peppered Sulayman's students with questions. Mostly, they wanted to know about the difference between the old Shoemaker, which the students had attended for eighth grade, and the new Mastery.

"The teachers weren't hard on us. They didn't care if we failed," Ashley Ensley, 16, said of her old school.

"You all didn't get rich? You all didn't hit the lottery?" Sharpton asked.

The students shook their heads, laughing. The changes, they said, were all about higher standards, adults who took a close interest in them, a college-going culture.

"So when the adults caught up to where you were, you took off?" Duncan asked.

The teens nodded.

Arlene Ackerman, city schools chief, said she welcomed the chance to show the dignitaries Philadelphia's scholastic strengths and discuss its weaknesses. "I'm happy to have partners who believe, as I do, there's not one way to reform public schools," said Ackerman.

Part of her five-year strategic plan calls for the district to shut 35 failing schools - the "Renaissance Schools" - and reopen them as charters, or schools run by outside groups. The Mastery model and others like it, Ackerman said, should be replicated.

"You'll see more of this as we roll out our Renaissance Schools - partnerships with the communities, and participation from charter schools," said Ackerman.

Recommendations from a committee studying how best to handle shutting the schools and opening new ones are due next month.

Gingrich said that he felt "a sense of great hope" visiting the schools, especially Mastery.

Mastery was founded in 2001 by Scott Gordon, a former businessman with an MBA from Yale. Its board boasts prominent business and civic leaders, and it supplements the funding it receives from the school district with fund-raising.

Gingrich, a Republican, wants more charter schools and stronger charter laws in all states.

"When you go to those kind of schools, you realize what is possible for all American children," said Gingrich. "If we have absolute proof it can be done, why aren't we doing it? We are literally risking the lives of these kids."

Duncan acknowledged that some have called for tighter monitoring of charter schools. In Philadelphia, for instance, federal authorities are investigating at least six charters for alleged financial mismanagement.

Charters, the secretary said, should be carefully scrutinized before being authorized. Then, he said, they ought to have real autonomy, freedom from bureaucracy, and meaningful performance contracts.

"If they're hitting the mark, they can do well and expand," Duncan said. "If they don't, they should close."

For yesterday's tour, the district chose McDaniel, a South Philadelphia K-6 school, because its scores have improved dramatically in recent years, although it just missed hitting its state benchmark last school year, Ackerman said.

"It's what we're trying to build in every school - an atmosphere where kids are happy and learning, regardless of their station in life," she said. "It's a school that's had lots of challenges but done really well."

At McDaniel, the guests folded themselves into child-size seats and listened as Karen Bushnell's fourth-grade class talked about poetry, surprising the guests with original poems they'd written about them.

Outside Bushnell's class, Sharpton said that the tour was suggested by President Obama when the three of them were visiting the White House to mark the 50th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case. Obama suggested how powerful it would be to have passionate people from opposite sides of the aisle working together on education reform.

"All of us agree that we have to do something, even though we don't always agree on how to get it done," Sharpton said. "It's the kind of bipartisan spirit we didn't see with health care, but we need to see with education."

Gingrich joked that Obama called for the tour "partly just for the spectacle of seeing us together."

Each of the trio said that education was the civil right of this generation, and that the U.S. lagged behind other countries in students' readiness.

"We're a country preparing for the 1956 Olympics," Gingrich said. "That's true in suburban schools, it's true in the best schools in the country. It's not just true of inner-city schools."

The next steps are clear, Duncan said: Take "islands of excellence" and turn them into "systems of excellence," regardless of school type.

"I'm not a fan of charter schools, but I am a fan of good charter schools," Duncan said. "What we need is more great schools of every form and fashion."