Distinguished educator Judy L. Elliott met with local journalists briefly Wednesday for the first time, saying she is in Buffalo in "a helping role" and interested in working in collaboration with district employees.
Elliott has been meeting with various people in the district this week, including the principals of 28 schools that have been identified by the state as among the lowest-performing 5 percent in the state. She said she has visited a dozen of those schools this week.
"I haven't been dodging you," she told reporters. "I've just been very, very busy."
Elliott was appointed by State Education Commissioner John B. King Jr. to help the district implement plans to improve student achievement at its schools, particularly those that are lowest-performing.
The "priority schools," according to a list released by the district Wednesday, are: D'Youville Porter, Buffalo Elementary School of Technology, School 17, Harriett Ross Tubman, BUILD, Bilingual Center 33, Futures, Martin Luther King Jr., International School 45, Drew Science Magnet, North Park, Hamlin Park, Badillo, Lydia Wright, Highgate Heights, McKinley, Bennett, Burgard, Lafayette, Riverside, South Park, West Hertel, Waterfront, Makowski, Sedita, Austin, East, and International Prep.
That means that nearly half of the district's 59 schools are now considered among the worst 5 percent in the state, based on English and math scores and graduation rates.
During her session with reporters, Elliott offered praise for district employees, saying there are a lot of good things happening in the schools that get overlooked.
"There are a lot of people working hard in these schools," she said.
Elliott has 45 days to submit her work plan to King. One of her primary responsibilities is to work with district officials to create a district plan.
There are two questions that guide her thinking, she said: "What does the data show? And, is every classroom one you would send your own flesh and blood into?"
She plans to assess programs based on the data that documents their results. Those that are effective should be kept, while those that do not should be re-evaluated, she said.
"One thing I'm looking at is return on investment," she said. "If we had been doing programs and initiatives and not seeing a return on investment, we need to ask: ‘Why do we keep doing that work?'"
Toward the end of her 11-minute group interview with journalists, arranged by a district spokeswoman, Elliott fielded questions about her $190-an-hour consulting fee, which will be paid out of the district's school improvement grant funds.
Asked whether she thought her fee – plus $275 a day in expenses – was reasonable for a poor district that faces a perpetual deficit, she said, "That contract has been agreed upon by the Board of Education. I'm pleased to come back to Western New York and help out the schools."
She is a Town of Tonawanda native who worked for many years in central office administrative positions in California until about a year ago. She most recently served as chief academic officer in Los Angeles.