Nutter to name parent advocate to School Reform Commission

Lorene Cary, an author and educator, won praise for her service on the School Reform Commission.
Lorene Cary, an author and educator, won praise for her service on the School Reform Commission. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 29, 2013

In a shake-up, Mayor Nutter is appointing a parent advocate and former Philadelphia School District bus aide to the School Reform Commission.

Sylvia P. Simms, a North Philadelphia resident and founder of the advocacy group Parent Power, will replace Lorene Cary. Simms and Commissioner Wendell Pritchett, whom Nutter reappointed, will serve four-year terms.

Cary, an author and professor, took a leave of absence for medical reasons several months ago and did not seek a second term. She earned high praise from the mayor and Chairman Pedro Ramos for her tenure on the SRC, particularly for her work on safety.

Simms' appointment is a major change on a commission populated until now by lawyers, academics, and other high-powered types. She is believed to be the first commissioner without a college degree.

"I'll be a voice at the table that's currently not at the table," Simms said.

Added Ramos: "It's a voice that doesn't get heard often enough, on either side of the SRC table."

Simms, 52, graduated from Simon Gratz High School and worked until recently as a bus aide with special needs students. She is now an outreach specialist for a group that brings low-cost wireless Internet access to city residents.

Her children graduated from Dobbins and University City High Schools, and her granddaughter attends Peirce Elementary in North Philadelphia, one of 37 schools slated to close in June. Peirce, at 23d and Cambria Streets, is where a 10-year-old was shot and killed on his way to class in 2004.

In 2009, Simms founded Parent Power, an advocacy organization that helps families fight for quality education for their children. She also sat on a steering committee of parents at Title I schools, a federal designation for schools with a majority of poor students.

Simms also served on the search committee that ultimately recommended William R. Hite Jr. as superintendent. That was the first chance that Ramos had to work closely with Simms, and he said he found her a "serious, thoughtful, and consistent contributor."

"I think her conduct as a member of that search committee and everything surrounding it really demonstrated her ability to bring practical wisdom and rigor to high-stakes decisions," he said.

Simms said she was surprised and honored when Nutter asked her to serve in the unpaid role. She will be sworn in by the next SRC meeting, scheduled for Feb. 21, placing her squarely in the middle of the school closing debate. Hearings on closings begin that day, with a vote scheduled for March 7.

Simms said she had not fully evaluated the district's closing plans.

"But I will," she said. "I want to see how they determined the schools they're closing, to make sure it's a fair process."

One thing is sure, Simms said: She wants to make sure all Philadelphians are heard.

"They have to find a better way to talk to the people and have those crucial conversations that people want to have," she said.

Her focus, Simms said, will be "parents, families, and community engagement." She wants to assemble a parent committee to advise the SRC, and make sure schools, especially low-performing ones, have advisory councils made up of mostly parents.

Nutter said in a statement that he knows Simms "understands from a grassroots level how important it is to educate our children. Sylvia will bring an incredibly important and unique perspective to educational advocacy to the School Reform Commission."

Pritchett, the chancellor of Rutgers-Camden, and Cary were first appointed by Nutter in 2011. Their terms expire at the end of this month. The mayor thanked Pritchett for agreeing to remain on the SRC and commended Cary's "passion for and dedication to the well-being of our young people."

Ramos said working with Cary had been "a true gift."

"I think most people recognize her gift for communication, for expression, but her capacity to listen critically is probably even greater," Ramos said. "Every member of the SRC is a great admirer of Lorene; we're very grateful for her service, and hope that she continues to get better."


Contact Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com or on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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