The night the Buffalo School Board approved a contract with distinguished educator Judy Elliott, a local radio reporter asked the new schools superintendent what everybody in town seemed to be wondering.
What, exactly, is this distinguished educator supposed to do for Buffalo’s schools?
“Is she a guardian angel? Is she a nun with a ruler? Is she a spy for [state Education Commissioner] John King?” WNED’s Mike Desmond asked.
The question itself may have been more telling than the answer.
Nobody seems entirely sure what Elliott is supposed to do – or how she’s supposed to do it, seeing as she is the first distinguished educator ever appointed in New York by the commissioner to assist a low-performing district. The uncharted territory is causing considerable anxiety in Buffalo.
Each of the possible versions offered by Desmond seems to have its share of believers – although the spy-for-John-King theory likely has the biggest following, especially in City Hall and throughout many a faculty room in city schools.
The official party line, of course, is: None of the above.
Whether you ask Superintendent Pamela C. Brown, state officials or even Elliott herself, the answer you’ll get will no doubt include the words “help,” “collaborate,” “supportive role,” and the like.
“She’s a professional,” the superintendent told Desmond. “Her primary role will be to serve as a consultant to work with the board and me to develop plans.”
King scoffs at the notion that Elliott is here as his spy.
“Judy’s here to help – be a source of support for the superintendent and the board,” he said. “And present recommendations to them and ultimately to us at the [State Education] Department on how to move things forward in Buffalo. The only thing I’m interested in is improved student outcomes.”
Let one thing be clear, though: It is not Elliott’s job to actually fix the schools.
Fixing the schools is a job that belongs to the superintendent.
“It’s not my role to do that,” Elliott confirms. “But it’s my job to facilitate that.”
That includes coming up with a plan on how to make those changes happen.
She has, in fact, already developed that plan. Two weeks ago, she submitted it to the state.
The public likely won’t know for quite some time, though, what her plan actually says.
“The document will be publicly available once it is reviewed and approved by the commissioner,” said Jonathan Burman, state Education Department spokesman.
How long that will take seems to be anybody’s guess – it’s now in the realm of Albany Standard Time. As of press time, it still had not been released.
The state has been known to move at an agonizingly slow pace, taking more than four months to review improvement plans for half a dozen failing Buffalo schools.
The state also has been known to move at warp speed, announcing approval of Buffalo’s 2011-12 teacher evaluation plan within hours of its final submission.
What we do know is that Elliott had precisely 45 days to put together a plan for fixing a school district whose decline has been years in the making.
King appointed her for one year; he has the option of asking her to continue her work here for up to two years beyond that.
The plan, one state official said, outlines nine key points. Among them, according to Brown: using data to drive instruction throughout the district and providing resources to schools in a way that’s more tailored to the individual needs of each school.
Fixing public education in Buffalo isn’t about addressing isolated problems in a handful of schools. Profound problems permeate the entire district, affecting all 32,000 students in various ways.
Truancy is rampant – one-third of high school students missed more than seven weeks of school in a recent year, and nearly half of kindergartners missed nearly a month. The district suspends students at four times the statewide rate. Less than a third of elementary and middle school students can read or do math at grade level. Only about half of all students graduate from high school – and only one out of four black males graduate.
Elliott spent her first month and a half on the job in a whirlwind tour of the 28 worst schools in Buffalo. Those schools – which account for nearly half of the 59 schools in the district – are counted by King’s administration as being among the worst 5 percent in New York.
These schools are now officially known as “priority” schools, under newer federal terminology that appears designed to sound less offensive than the former “persistently lowest-achieving” moniker.
Elliott says she will bring with her the lessons she learned working in various districts across the country to reshape education in Buffalo.
“Instead of admiring the problem, let’s do something about it. We need to make this the best run at increasing equity and access across the district as we can,” she said. “You cannot run a school district from central office. In a lot of places, the people who sit in the big seats tell everyone else what to do. I would walk the buildings with principals. That’s how I moved things and got systems working.”
The principals of the priority schools in Buffalo generally say their visits with Elliott were brief – in most cases, she visited the schools before classes were even in session – but that she impressed them as committed, competent and approachable.
“You can see that she has a job to do and she’s very committed to what her role is going to be,” one principal said. “I think she can make a difference if they truly let her be a conduit for communication with the state.
“If the School Board thinks they’re OK just bringing in a new superintendent, they’re sadly mistaken. We need more than one person. We can’t do it on our own. We haven’t been able to do it in 10 years.”
A hometown athlete
For as much curiosity as there is surrounding Elliott’s role in the district, there’s an equal measure of curiosity about Elliott herself.
Upon meeting people here for the first time, she often describes herself as “the white lady with the crazy hair,” self-deprecating humor intended to break the ice.
The truth is, most people here don’t know a whole lot more about her than that.
It’s known that she most recently worked in Los Angeles, where she was forced out of her job as a high-ranking school district official. And the Buffalo School Board agreed – grudgingly – to pay her an hourly rate that exceeds the superintendent’s pay.
Elliott bristles as much at the notion that she’s an outsider to Buffalo as she does to the notion that what matters about her tenure in Los Angeles is that it ended with a buyout of her contract.
It’s true that she spent the last two decades mostly outside of Western New York – but before that, this is the place she called home for 30 years.
Elliott was born in Milwaukee, the youngest of six children, but from the time she was 3½ years old, the family lived in a modest four-bedroom house on a corner lot in the Town of Tonawanda – a house where her mother still lives.
Those who knew her as a child say her family was strict, her father a part-time preacher. Elliott recalls playing violin duets with one of her sisters at church services when her father preached – a lay minister, he didn’t have his own congregation, but filled in at the City Mission and other places downtown.
Elliott, now 52, talks sparingly about her childhood, referring obliquely to tensions in the house that prompted her to spend most of her teenage years elsewhere.
“I grew up in a very poor family. We had very little means,” she said. “I was one of those kids who never would have amounted to anything. I came from a very meager background. Education was the only way to get out.”
As a student at Kenmore East High School, Elliott discovered a passion that would define her life through young adulthood: diving.
Those who coached her through the years say there were plenty of girls competing against her who were physically stronger than she was. Elliott was born with one leg slightly shorter than the other – a condition one coach recalled as a significant disadvantage in the sport.
But there were few who consistently dove as well as she did.
“In the case of Judy, her work ethic is what always impressed me. She was not the most gifted athlete on the board, but she did perform,” said John Crawford, a coach who knew her since she was 15. 
In high school, she dove so well that she was the only girl to compete against the boys’ team.
She approached the sport in what some described as an academic way.
“She would analyze her dives herself. She knew what she was doing wrong with a dive before I had to tell her. And then she would correct it,” said Kent Clulow, who coached her at Buffalo State College.
“If we went to a big meet, state or national, she would look at the field of divers and she would look for the one she would have to beat. They would do a dive and then she would do the same dive, better, in warm-ups. It was a way to psych the other person out.”
Elliott’s dedication paid off. She worked her way through Buffalo State, relying on Pell grants and lifeguard jobs to pay tuition. By the time she graduated in 1982 with a bachelor’s degree in exceptional education – another term for special-education – she had acquired a slew of athletic honors, including recognition as an NCAA All-American athlete four years in a row.
Back to school
After graduation, she taught students with disabilities at her alma mater, Kenmore East, for a year. From there, she went on to a variety of positions locally: teaching special-education at Hamburg Junior High and then at Amsdell Junior High in Frontier Central Schools; later, working as a school psychologist in the Frontier schools and then in the Williamsville schools.
Along the way, she earned a master’s in educational psychology, a master’s in school psychology and a doctorate in educational psychology – all from the University at Buffalo – and a master’s in school district administration from Fredonia State College.
In 1994, Elliott turned to research.
“One of my goals was always to write some books,” she said.
She packed her car and headed to the University of Minnesota, where she spent five years as a senior research associate at the National Center on Educational Outcomes. Much of her work focused on finding ways to help students with disabilities have more success in school.
“She’s about as energetic a researcher and educator as I’ve ever run into,” said Jim Ysseldyke, who oversaw Elliott’s work in Minnesota. “She is absolutely committed to improving performance with low-performing kids and schools. She has a very strong commitment to putting in place evidence-based practices. She has a kind of no-nonsense approach.”
It was around the time that Elliott was working in Minnesota that she started being recognized as a national expert in special-education, thanks to her prolific publishing, speaking engagements and participation in national panels and conferences. (Along with publishing numerous articles in academic journals, she has co-authored four books, including “Time Savers for Educators” and “Maximizing Test Performance for Students with Disabilities.”)
Her reputation landed her a job offer as assistant superintendent in Long Beach, Calif., where she worked for eight years, followed by a one-year stint as chief of teaching and learning in Portland, Ore.
In 2008, Elliott was hired as chief academic officer for the Los Angeles Unified School District – the second-highest position in the nation’s second-largest school district, with an enrollment of more than 640,000 students. During her three years there, she was instrumental in introducing a number of initiatives – some of which shook things up a bit.
In most schools, students’ scores on standardized tests don’t directly affect their grades.
In Los Angeles under Elliott, the district rolled out a program in some high schools that rewarded students for performing well on standardized tests. Those who improved from one proficiency level to the next were rewarded with higher course grades.
Advocates of the plan said it finally gave students what had long been missing: a personal stake in their performance on the tests. Others said it simply fueled an already test-crazed education establishment.
Just as that program attracted its share of fans and opponents, so did a new homework policy that Elliott brought to the school board: Homework could count for no more than 10 percent of a student’s course grade.
Supporters of the policy said it acknowledged a reality in urban schools: Many students’ family situations make finishing homework a challenge. Adults at home are often unable to help with the work; the home environment may not be conducive to focusing on schoolwork; and family responsibilities such as helping with younger siblings often take priority over schoolwork.
Opponents of the reduction – including many teachers – said it let students off the hook and sent the message that homework wasn’t important.
“As an L.A. Unified teacher, I would like to send a big thank you to Chief Academic Officer Judy Elliott for this new homework policy,” one teacher wrote sarcastically in a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times. “Thank you for no more calls to parents requesting they turn off the television so their child can concentrate on homework. Blare away. Parents are not to be held responsible for their children’s academic achievement. Thank you for pointing out to our children that effort does not count.”
Ultimately, it was the homework policy that led to Elliott’s departure from Los Angeles.
Two months after the policy went into effect, the superintendent, John Deasy, put the brakes on it. Soon after, in August 2011, the district bought out Elliott’s contract for $231,164 – the salary for the remaining 10 months on her contract, plus unused vacation time.
Elliott defends the homework policy – which the school board had approved. She says a group of parents, teachers and administrators spent 18 months developing it.
“It really got spun as lots of different things, but it really was [the result] of a lot of people working hard on it,” she said. “When it started getting lots of attention, getting on CNN, that’s when they backed off on it.”
She downplays all the hype in Buffalo about her exit from Los Angeles. She was hired by then-Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines, she points out. When Deasy rose to succeed him, he decided to bring in his own team, she said.
“It wasn’t a good fit,” Elliott said. “We mutually agreed to separate.”
In recent months, she has been working on her own as an educational consultant, operating from a home base in Tampa.
Buffalo is one of several places Elliott is working in right now – and likely the one that was the least eager for her arrival.
After all, New York State Regent Bob Bennett has been talking for at least two years about a state takeover of the district – something that would have to be prefaced by the appointment of a distinguished educator, according to the proposed takeover legislation.
School Board members, administrators and plenty of teachers remain skeptical about the state’s motives for appointing Elliott, despite state officials’ insistence that Elliott is here to help turn the schools around, not to lay the foundation for a state takeover.
“I pray this is not a political move and an exertion of power for increasing one’s status,” said Florence Johnson, a longtime board member. She voted in favor of Elliott’s contract, but “under protest.”
Skepticism gave way to outright hostility for some once word spread of Elliott’s $190-an-hour consulting fee, supplemented by a $275 per day line for expenses. (Although King appointed her, the district has to pay her.) National experts in education say her contract is in the ballpark for consultants of her stature – but most Buffalo School Board members say it’s outrageous.
In the past few weeks, board members have generally toned down their initial hostility toward Elliott – publicly, anyway – although it’s hard to say whether that’s because she has won their confidence or because they simply see a futility in continuing to complain about a situation they can’t change.
“We’ll just see what happens,” one of them said with a shrug.