Gregory Thornton, superintendent of Delaware County's Chester Upland School District and a former top official in the Philadelphia district, is one of three finalists for the top job in the Milwaukee school district.

Milwaukee Public Schools, the nation's 27th largest district, with 82,450 students, expects to name the new head by Feb. 1, said spokeswoman Lynne Sobczak.

Thornton, 54, is a product of the Philadelphia school system; he graduated from Overbrook High School, as well as Temple University. He came back to the Philadelphia district as its chief academic officer in 2004 after serving as a deputy superintendent in Montgomery County, Md.

He was named superintendent in 2007 of the 4,700-student Chester Upland district, one of the state's most troubled. He was hired by a state-appointed Board of Control.

In his two years there, he has started two high school programs, one in health careers and one in science and technology. He also partnered with the nonprofit Chester Fund for Education and the Arts to open the Chester Upland School of the Arts.

Thornton also oversaw the absorption of the low-performing Village Charter School back into the district.

Though there have been modest improvements in state test scores, the district remains one of the lowest-performing in Pennsylvania.

"He's done a fantastic job," Board of Control Chairman C. Marc Woolley said yesterday. "While I support his being able to look for other opportunities, he'll be sadly missed if he chooses to go."

Thornton said he was still concentrating on Chester Upland, "to make sure we have a great school year."

The other Milwaukee finalists are from Maryland and Nevada.

Contact staff writer Dan Hardy at 610-313-8134 or dhardy@phillynews.com.