CONWAY — The Conway School Board unanimously voted in Jessica DellaValla as the new program director of Project SUCCEED for the Conway School District on Monday night.

The Jackson resident said she is excited about the opportunity, although it means she will have to step down from her seat on the Jackson School Board, a post she has held since 2016.

“Connecting with and supporting kids gives me great joy, and I am beyond thrilled to be joining Project SUCCEED at this point in its journey as one of the valley’s great community institutions,” said DellaValla. “I have seen first-hand how a good advocate can change the life trajectories of so many, and I have dedicated my career to ensuring those I serve have access to life-changing opportunities.”

DellaValla, 45, takes over at Project SUCCEED from Clay Groves, who held the post for the before- and after-school program for the past five years. Groves resigned Dec. 26 to pursue other opportunities but is helping DellaValla make the transition a smooth one.

“He is a tough act to follow, and I have a lot to learn,” DellaValla said Tuesday.

SAU 9 Superintendent Kevin Richard said Tuesday that “Jess is going to do a great job for Project SUCCEED. She’s a big loss on the Jackson School Board. She’s a mover and shaker, very thorough and detailed. She’s extremely passionate about education,” Richard said.

The Project SUCCEED (Schools Under Contract Creating Enriching Extended Days) job was 25-hours a week, 40 weeks and will continue as such.

The program serves all three Conway elementary schools: John H. Fuller, Conway Elementary and Pine Tree School. Della Valla will be paid $26.91 per hour with no benefits. Groves was making $25 an hour.

Richard said four people applied for the position, and three candidates were interviewed by a search committee. “Jess was our top choice,” Richard said. “We were very lucky to get her.”

Joe Lentini, chair of the Conway board, said Monday night: “For those of us who worked with her on the SAU 9 Board, we’re extremely fortunate to have her step in and do this.”

DellaValla joins a team that includes site directors Jayson Andrews (at Conway Elementary), Heidi Belle-Isle (Pine Tree) and Sheri Whitaker (John H. Fuller), along with administrative assistant and billing manager Corie Hilton.

Jessica DellaValla lives in Jackson with her husband, Joseph Della Valla, a physician at Androscoggin Hospital in Berlin, and their three children: Molly, 13; Joseph, 11; and John, 8, all of whom are home-schooled.

A graduate of the University of Scranton and Temple University Beasley School of Law, Jessica brings over 25 years of education and leadership experience to Project SUCCEED. From the time she served as an Americorps VISTA volunteer in Opelousas, La., where she designed an after-school enrichment and mentoring program for at-risk youth, Access to Success, she’s built her career in a variety of public service positions, many of which focused on serving youth.

Immediately out of law school, she served as an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia and as an adjunct professor at Community College of Philadelphia and Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia.

From there, she moved to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where she served as executive director of Dial Help Inc., a 24-hour community support and outreach center and also continued teaching at Michigan Technological University.

The DellaVallas have lived in valley for about a decade. In addition to her work as managing director of the DellaValla Group, which provides educational and non-profit consulting services, Jessica has served on various boards, most recently as co-board president at Starting Point: Services for Victims of Domestic & Sexual Violence.

Asked why she chose to apply for the Project SUCCEED directorship, Jessica said: “It is so much more than a before- and after- school program. Project SUCCEED creates true community connections for our kids and their families. Those connections create a wide variety of learning opportunities for students where they build social capital and explore passions that directly lead to academic, community and lifelong success.”

She added: “Clay has done such a fantastic job building a team that truly serves not only kids and families but the larger community as well. The collaborations he has made with key organizations and businesses show the value we bring to the valley. I am very impressed with the breadth and quality of our programming, staff and leadership. I hope to help Project SUCCEED continue to be an essential part of our community.”

When asked what she thinks will be the most challenging part of her new position, DellaValla noted that starting July 1, Project SUCCEED no longer will be allowed to accept fees from participating families, per the state Department of Education.

“That means we’ll need to raise over $60,000 from other sources in order to keep our lights on after school,” she said.

Project SUCCEED is funded in part by 21st Century Community Learning Center, donations, town warrants and for the remainder of the academic year, program fees.

DellaValla has already come up with a wish list for Project SUCCEED.

“In addition to my hope that we keep up the excellent work we are known for, my immediate goals are: 1. to find the funding we will lose on July 1 when we can no longer accept fees; and 2) to get to know our parents and educators as well as our supporters in the community.

“If I have learned anything from educating my own children, it is that when we connect kids with good and interested people, we cannot stop them from growing and learning,” Jessica said. “I hope to be one of those connecters for Conway’s students.”

Jessica said she will miss serving on the school board. “Working on the board has taught me how important it is to listen to each other,” she said. “Our decisions are public and taxpayers, families and, especially, our students, are paying attention and what we do matters to them.

“There is a beauty to thoughtful and respectful decision-making, especially when we don’t agree,” Jessica said. “I have also seen teachers and administrators show up in the evenings, on weekends and at all sorts of odd hours when the rest of us are sleeping in order to help students. We don’t pay our educators enough.”

Jessica DellaValla’s term was not scheduled to expire until March 2021. But Richard said it is unlikely the Jackson board will look to fill the seat for the next two months. In March, they will probably advertise the one-year seat on the board, he said.

Jessica had this advice to anyone considering running for the seat: “Do it,” she said. “You have something to contribute no matter what your background or education. Our kids need you. Our community needs you. Ask many questions before and once you are on it. Hold our leadership and yourself accountable. Dollars and decisions matter. Know that it is a real, concrete way to make a difference in the life of children.”

After the board voted 7-0 to hire DellaValla, Richard told her with a wide smile: “It should be noted that now you work for me, and I don’t work for you.”

For more information about Project SUCCEED, go to projectsucceed.com or call (603) 662-6166.

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