Divine’s Feb. 18 testimony added nothing new to the limited public record about her current professional involvements, or Citizen’s.
Simms has denied any knowledge of Divine’s work. “I don’t know what my sister’s got,” she said immediately after the Wister vote, when asked about Williams’ outburst.
For public officials, however, knowing is part of the job, experts say.
“Any business or personal relationship that affects a significant decision or transaction ought to be disclosed,” Thornburgh said. “That’s what annual disclosure statements are for.”
Simms’ most recent available annual public disclosure was filed in April 2015, but it covers 2014, before Divine joined Citizen.
And after Simms' controversial vote, District officials quickly dismissed any possibility of a conflict.
In an unusual after-the-fact ethics ruling the next day, District counsel Davis concluded that no conflict existed because Divine hasn’t worked for Mastery and Simms hadn’t helped her get the job with Citizen.
Davis and Simms, asked later whether they were aware of Divine’s employment and her documented activity at Wister, both declined to comment.
Davis likewise declined comment on whether Divine’s involvement in pro-Mastery advocacy funded by an outside source would constitute a conflict for Simms. He referred to his earlier ruling.
And in a statement, Simms addressed no details, saying: “It was clear to me that the Wister families I met with wanted the opportunity to have a better education. … Somebody's got to stand up for these parents, and that's what I did."
Divine, in a long and respected career, has served as a professional outreach specialist and volunteer advocate concerning many educational issues. She has worked for the Pennsylvania Department of Education and the Philadelphia School District. She has joined campaigns to advance early literacy and fair funding, teaming up with organizations of all kinds. Last year she was named a member of Mayor Kenney’s transition team.
School choice became a visible priority for Divine after she signed with Citizen last spring. Her recent publicized activities include a lecture on “advocating to improve schools [and] increase quality seats” and a workshop featuring a former PSP employee.
Beyond such occasional appearances, the public record shows little to indicate what Divine’s professional duties for Citizen might be.
What the record does show is a Citizen-PSP connection that dates back to at least 2013, when PSP staffer Joseph Butler left his position to join his brother Chris at Citizen – though Joseph Butler still maintains a PSP email address. The young firm would soon have Mastery and PSP as clients, providing outreach and community networking. One of Citizen’s latest projects is a pro-charter advocacy group called Educational Opportunities for Families, which prominently features PSP videos (and little else) on its website.
Mastery officials say their contract with Citizen, for outreach in Camden, ended last March.
Divine signed on with Citizen the next month; her job description on the website LinkedIn reads, “Work to achieve organizational goals and objectives through public awareness and engagement.”
Figueroa was adamant that Divine came to Wister “as a volunteer.” But she said she knows little of Divine’s work or her Chicago connections – only that Divine is a “consultant” whose focus is “high-quality education.”
But parents opposing the charter takeover who saw Divine’s activity up close said she seemed more like a professional with an interest in the outcome – but not one she would openly acknowledge.
A visit to Wister triggers suspicion
Divine appeared at Wister in early December, joining Figueroa at the meetings of a parent group that wanted to see Wister stay under District control.
“She said, ‘I’m Quibila Divine, and I’m a member of Jim Kenney’s transition team,’” Wister parent Kenya Nation recalled. “I said, ‘Great! Jim Kenney’s for community schools! We’ve got someone on our side!’”
Supported by volunteers from Parents United for Public Education (and eventually the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, which helped with some PR), the parent group met weekly. Figueroa began attending early on; Divine joined her twice, listening quietly and displaying no noticeable pro-charter sentiment.
To the contrary. Divine once promised Nation that she’d deliver a message from the parents to the mayor.
“We were so happy,” Nation recalled.
A spokesman for the mayor said Kenney doesn’t recall getting a message from Divine, one of more than 100 transition team members.
But Nation and the others vividly recall the invitation they got from Divine and Figueroa to attend a workshop on “parents’ rights,” which proved to be a lecture from Divine on sliding test scores, ending with a visit from a Mastery recruiter.
Ted Stones, a 30-year Germantown resident and activist, helped plan the event, after running into Divine and Figueroa at another function. His name ended up on the promotional flyer next to Divine’s. But Stones said that Divine’s meeting, held Dec. 9 at New Redeemer Church on Germantown Avenue, didn’t go as planned or advertised. He ended up deeply disappointed.
“Everything is being done so the real intention is disguised,” said Stones, an Action United board member and committed charter critic. “If it came up in the planning meeting that this was for charters, I would have noticed. I would have vehemently rejected.”
Rather than focusing on “rights” such as parents’ ability to visit schools and engage with teachers, Divine’s lecture, according to several attendees, was about the District’s inability to boost chronically low test scores – including those in District-run turnarounds like Steel Elementary.
“She was talking about scores, doing examples, teaching the parents how to read the scores,” said Figueroa. “It was educating us how to read data.”
Divine’s case for charters was implied but clear, Stones said. “She didn’t say it explicitly, because I think she was aware of what she was doing.”
“As I recall, she didn’t do any selling of Mastery,” said Robin Lowry, a Wister teacher. “She was just painting a picture of how awful things are at Wister.”
“If we’re supposed to be learning our rights, I’m confused,” parent Novilette Jones recalled thinking.
When Mastery employee Winslow Mason arrived at the event to recruit parents for school visits, Jones concluded that she’d been “set up.” Stones and Lowry, too, felt like victims of a bait-and-switch.
“I feel you got us here so you could get the Mastery people to convert us,” said Stones.
Mastery says their staffer’s visit to Divine’s meeting wasn’t at their direction; Figueroa said it was just by chance.
But Jones said her suspicions only deepened the next day, when Mason and Figueroa visited her hair salon, bearing Mastery’s distinctive royal blue shirts. Figueroa told Jones that she’d converted just that morning, after visiting a Mastery school.
“We did not pressure her,” said Figueroa later. “I just wanted to tell her what I had seen, that I was impressed.”
A meeting with Green
After the church meeting, Divine didn’t revisit Wister’s pro-District parent group. Figueroa soon became active in the pro-Mastery parent group, joining other members at public events and appearing in videos on Mastery’s Facebook page.
Figueroa also joined Mastery supporters on the visit with Simms and Bill Green, the day before Simms’ game-changing Mastery resolution.
Mastery officials say they endorsed that trip, but didn’t organize or fund it.
“The SRC and Dr. Hite are public officials, and the parents felt they had a right to get their voices heard,” said Dorn of Mastery. “They told us what they were doing, and we supported and appreciated it.”
Figueroa said the private session was organized by “the parents” and not Divine or anyone else. She said she was acting as an individual and Wister grandparent, and not as a representative of Parent Power.
But Figueroa declined to say who covered the trip’s expenses, such as the van ride that took a dozen Mastery supporters from Germantown to District headquarters in Center City.
“We needed a ride and we got it – that’s all you need to know,” Figueroa said.
As for the meeting itself, Green said he sympathized with the Mastery supporters’ concerns – Mastery is “the best in the country,” he said, and is “a partner the District needs to work in good faith with and not surprise.” He said he made no promises to the group.
Instead, Green said he told them he would check one last time with Hite to learn more about why he changed his mind about making Wister a charter and did this in executive session before the SRC meeting.
Still, Green said he was caught by surprise that evening when Simms brought her motion to the floor. But he was happy to back her.
As someone who has described his own role on the SRC as “blocking and tackling” for Hite, Green said, he could not have realistically moved on his own to restore Mastery’s bid.
But “Sylvia felt very strongly about this. I wanted to support her,” said Green. “I also believed that it would be in the best interest of the children at Wister. The reality is, it’s a very different dynamic for Sylvia to stand up and fight for children than it is for me.
“If I did it, it would be, ‘Green and Hite fight.’”
A surprise vote draws a crowd
Jan. 21 wasn’t a red-letter SRC event for pro-District Wister parents.
Some, like Nation, stayed home, having been assured by District staff that “Wister being a charter was no longer an option,” she recalled.
But three other groups were well-represented: Mastery Wister supporters, Citizen employees, and PSP executives.
Divine and Joseph Butler from Citizen Consulting were present at the meeting, with Butler seated close to PSP’s two top officials, Mark Gleason and Mike Wang.
Near them was an energetic group of blue-shirted Mastery supporters, whose visit that day, like the visit to see Simms and Green, was endorsed but not organized by Mastery officials. Those supporters cheered with delight when Simms brought up her motion and cheered louder when it passed.
Among the happiest that night was Mastery supporter William Jackson, a former Wister parent and frequent public presence during the campaign. Photographs show a gleeful Jackson giving PSP’s Gleason a warm embrace after the vote.