This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Sylvia Simms, a former school bus aide turned community activist from North Philadelphia who served four years on the School Reform Commission, has been named the new director of Educational Opportunities for Families, a grassroots advocacy group working to improve city schools’ quality that has been a strong proponent of charter school expansion.
Co-founders Daniel Jean and brothers Chris and Joseph Butler ran the organization without titles before Simms’ arrival, so she will be its first official executive director, a spokesman for the group said.
Jean and the Butlers, along with Simms’ sister, Quibila Divine, are listed as staff members on the website for Citizen Consulting Group, a firm that works on education reform in several cities, including Philadelphia. It mostly favors charter schools and has ties to the Philadelphia School Partnership.
“Sylvia has dedicated her life to fighting for better schools for Philadelphia’s children through sustained parental advocacy,” said Jean in a statement. “Since its founding in 2014, EOF has grown dramatically as a voice for parents and families in education reform, and so Sylvia’s appointment is a terrific next step as we seek to engage thousands of additional families in the fight to improve our schools.”
In the coming weeks, the group plans to unveil an effort to focus on school reform in deeply impoverished neighborhoods. It is too early to say exactly what the plan will entail, Simms said, because she still has to organize a team, but as a North Philly resident herself, that area will be among the first to receive attention. North Philadelphia now has 34 of the city’s worst schools.
“Just because the students are stuck in these struggling schools that are from the poorest communities in North Philadelphia, it doesn’t mean that we can forget about them,” Simms said. “We cannot ask them to wait for the same opportunities that other students are already receiving.”
In 2009, Simms founded Parent Power, an advocacy group protecting the rights of parents and families in public education, and she has been heading it since. But now that she has accepted the new position at EOF, her sister, Divine, will take on the leadership of Parent Power and continue the work of the organization along with Simms’ two daughters Allegra and La’Skeetia.
Divine said she is excited for her sister and happy that she is “going to be able to continue to do the work for the families in Philadelphia and beyond.”
“I think this is just a continuation of the work we were doing together. It seems like I will be picking up the mantle and filling the big shoes she is leaving for me.”
Simms’ work as an education advocate goes back more than a decade. Before founding Parent Power, she served as a broadband adoption community liaison for the Urban Affairs Coalition, a position funded by Comcast, where she helped to expand digital access to underserved communities in Philadelphia. She also worked as a bus attendant for students with disabilities for 15 years. Her activism and ideas drew the attention of Lori Shorr, then the city’s chief education officer, and led to her nomination in 2013 by Mayor Michael Nutter to the School Reform Commission.
Simms’ and Divine’s ties to Citizen Consulting and its association with PSP have caused controversy. While on the SRC, Simms voted in 2016 to turn over Wister Elementary School in Germantown to Mastery Charter after Superintendent William Hite recommended against it. Citizen Consulting, and Divine, had been organizing pro-Mastery parent meetings at the school, and anti-charter activists said that Simms should have recused herself from the vote if her sister was working for a group that stood to benefit financially from the change.
Simms was the tie-breaking vote on the five-member commission. The District’s general counsel at the time ruled that her vote did not represent a conflict of interest, and she was later cleared in an ethics complaint.
Parent Power recently hosted State Sen. John Eichelberger, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, at T.M. Peirce Elementary School. Earlier this year, he made remarks interpreted by some as racist.
Eichelberger had said that some public schools in cities like Philadelphia are “pushing [students] toward college, and they’re dropping out. They fall back and don’t succeed, whereas if there was a less intensive track, they would,” implying that students of color couldn’t handle more intensive academic work. Eichelberger, from central Pennsylvania, is a strong charter school proponent.
Simms said she invited Eichelberger because “he needs to hear the voice of people he doesn’t know.” Having a relationship with people who live in Philadelphia can be a “good collaboration.”
In her new role as executive director of EOF, Simms doesn’t plan on changing her ways much. She said she is "going to do what I always do.”
“It’s about the children, not about adults. It doesn’t matter where you sit in all of this if we keep our eyes on the prize, which are the children. If everyone works together, we can turn the schools around, and [to do that] we have to listen to what the families want.”