Last week’s public forum on school governance at Drexel University was interrupted by a brief, but loud protest, in which a small group of parents demanded that the panel focus not on governance, but on how “Black and Brown children” are being “failed” by public schools.
The protesters did not publicly identify themselves as part of a particular group or campaign. They made no specific demands during a five-minute disruption that included one protester shouting into a bullhorn.
But members of the group later confirmed to NewsWorks’ Avi Wolfman-Arent that they were affiliated with Educational Opportunities for Families (EOF) and the Parent Leadership Advocacy Network (the PLAN), two community-organizing efforts with ties to both School Reform Commissioner Sylvia Simms and the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP), the city’s leading charter school advocate.
Neither Simms nor PSP responded to requests for comment on Thursday’s protest or whether they played any role in organizing or supporting it. During the protest, Simms told an event organizer that she had asked the group to stop yelling.
Among the protesters was Simms’ daughter, Allegra Simms, a parent at North Philadelphia’s T.M. Pierce Elementary. After the meeting, the younger Simms told the Notebook’s Noah Levinson that the EOF/PLAN group’s concern is that “low-income families … get nothing in their schools.”
Asked for the protest’s goals, the younger Simms said only that the District must involve more residents citywide in school decisions.
“I hope that more low-income families get educated,” Allegra Simms said, “and these people who stand up here trying to help and assist get these low-income families advocating for all children.”
Another protester, EOF organizer Daniel Jean, told NewsWorks: “Parents are not concerned with governance. It's a huge distraction."
EOF is a self-described “grassroots advocacy group” whose mission is to organize parents to advocate for “high quality” school options. Its most prominent organizer is Quibila Divine, a veteran local education advocate now employed by a Chicago-based public relations firm, who is also Sylvia Simms’ sister. EOF’s website lists no funders, staff or board members, but prominently features pro-charter videos produced by PSP’s lobbying arm, Philadelphia School Advocacy Partners.
EOF and PSP’s relationship was first revealed during last spring’s controversial battle for control of Wister Elementary in Germantown, after a PSP employee asked a Notebook reporter to leave an EOF-hosted community meeting.
Neither EOF nor PSP has ever commented in detail on the connection. Divine told the Notebook that EOF’s funding is “not your business.” But PSP’s Mike Wang confirmed at the time that PSP supports EOF in “a variety of ways.”
“We support EOF because we believe there is no other organization in the city that is as effective in elevating the voices of parents with children in all different types of city schools,” Wang told the Notebook.
Other ties link EOF to Simms herself. The PLAN is a partnership of EOF and Parent Power, a parent organizing group founded by Simms and Divine. Together, the groups organize a series of meetings called Parent Congresses, funded in part by a federal Race to the Top grant awarded to Parent Power.
The goal of the Parent Congresses is to teach parents how to advocate for quality schools. Their motto – “No More Waiting for Quality Schools” – was first used by PSP in a 2014 campaign pushing for charter expansion.
How the protesters feel about the current SRC or any possible replacement was not clear. Commissioner Simms' term on the SRC will end in January. A recent ethics complaint alleging a conflict of interest for Simms based on her sister’s advocacy was dismissed by the State Ethics Commission for “lack of evidence.”
Among the potential governance changes that were discussed at the forum was one in which local school councils dominated by parents had significant power, including the ability to choose principals. Panel participants agreed that it was time for a change from the current School Reform Commission, a five-member body with three gubernatorial appointees and two mayoral appointees, to one that is more locally controlled. But they disagreed on what a new governance structure should look like and how quickly it should be put in place.
The six panelists were: former SRC member Wendell Pritchett; City Council President Darrell Clarke; parent advocate Robin Roberts; Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan; Sarah Galbally, Gov. Wolf's policy director; and Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children & Youth.
Questions for the panel included whether a new governing body should be elected or appointed; whether it should have its own taxing authority; and whether there should be a way to guarantee the participation of a variety of stakeholders, including parents.
Newly appointed SRC Chair Joyce Wilkerson is on record saying that she agrees with the goal that the SRC should be phased out and replaced eventually, but only after careful planning.
In a recent interview, she said she would like to make sure that any new panel has diverse viewpoints, specifically citing parents.
“I think the [five-member] SRC may be too small to have the kind of voices it needs to have,” Wilkerson said. “I think Sylvia Simms has provided a very important perspective, and having her in the room has been valuable.”
Wilkerson added that it was also important to have “an educator’s perspective” and that of a finance expert. “The SRC is a huge business, and when we don’t pay sufficient attention to the finances or don’t have people with that kind of expertise on SRC, we miss things.”
Notebook staffer Dale Mezzacappa and freelancer Noah Levinson contributed to this article.