A new group that wants to ensure that all Philadelphia students have access to good schools will begin by offering support to those who seek to turn around failing district schools.

Mike O'Neill, chairman of the Philadelphia School Partnership, said Thursday that it would use $16 million it has raised toward its $100 million goal to encourage successful providers to apply for the district's next phase of turnaround schools.

Many educators, he said, are hesitant to try because they don't have the $1 million to $1.5 million in startup costs needed for each school. The money would be awarded to those chosen by the district.

"We're going to make sure that every person who answers . . . to the School District for the next set of conversions has the money they need to open a school," O'Neill said. "We want to encourage great leaders to come in and open great schools."

O'Neill, a businessman who helped found the partnership, spoke to an overflow crowd at the National Constitution Center that attended the partnership's launch.

The partnership is a collaboration of businesses, philanthropies, and educators from public, private, and charter schools. It has embarked on a campaign to raise money over the next five years to accelerate the pace of school improvements in the city.

"Education in our city is our single greatest risk to our future," O'Neill said, "and it's also the single greatest opportunity."

Nick Torres, the new group's president, said the partnership's goal was to make sure that Philadelphia students, who now score near the bottom among 18 major cities on national math and reading tests, are in first place by 2015.

Preparing students better means more will graduate from high school and college and help fuel the city's economy, he said.

Torres and O'Neill said the organization intended to help make the dramatic improvements by supporting the School District's plans to overhaul failing schools and by assisting successful charter, private, and religious schools.

There are 245,287 students in city schools: 162,670 in district schools, 36,938 in charters, 29,884 in parochial schools, and 15,795 in private schools. Partnership leaders said the educators in the different systems needed to begin talking to each other and collaborating.

"This organization is a public recognition that we share more educational goals than differences," O'Neill said, "and that now, more than ever, Philadelphia has to pull together to support this common agenda."

As an independent nonprofit, the partnership is hoping to garner funding from national foundations by demonstrating that Philadelphia is serious about improving education for all students.

On Tuesday, the district announced it was beginning a process to identify turnaround teams for the second year of Superintendent Arlene Ackerman's "Renaissance" schools initiative, which targets failing schools.

The School District has not said how many schools would be candidates for makeovers in 2011. This fall, seven former district schools were converted into charter schools, and the district is overseeing overhauls of six others.

The partnership also will work with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia to develop a 10-year plan to help make the city's Catholic schools financially viable and halt closures.

Every year, O'Neill said, the city's Catholic schools lose 2,000 students to district and publicly funded charter schools. The loss, he said, not only undermines schools that have been successful for decades but also increases the district's annual costs by $26 million.

Mary Rochford, the superintendent of Catholic schools, told the gathering that the archdiocese supported the partnership and expected it would be "respectful of our Catholic mission" while assisting the schools.

O'Neill said in an interview after the program that the archdiocese agreed Wednesday to announce in the next month that it would begin making public its city students' scores on national Terra Nova standardized tests. The archdiocese has not publicly disclosed test results. It does not participate in the state standardized tests taken by students in district, charter, and some private schools.

He acknowledged that the five-year goal of boosting student achievement was ambitious, "but I don't think it's impossible."

The partnership was put together quietly over the last several months by a group that includes O'Neill, a Conshohocken businessman who heads a group that raises money for Catholic schools; Janine Yass of the Susquehanna Foundation; Bruce Melgary of the Lenfest Foundation; Evie McNiff of the Children's Scholarship Fund Philadelphia; David Hardy, head of Boys Latin of Philadelphia Charter School; and Scott Gordon, founder and chief executive officer of Mastery Charter Schools.

Thursday's formal launch attracted administrators from district, Catholic, and charter schools, politicians, and representatives of foundations and philanthropies.

State Rep. Dwight Evans and State Sen. Anthony H. Williams, both Philadelphia Democrats, praised the partnership.

"We will be with you every step of the way," said Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter's chief education officer. "As a city, we can only survive if we do this."

Contact staff writer Martha Woodall at 215-854-2789 or martha.woodall@phillynews.com.