Gone fishin’

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Judy DeNova, who has led the Chittenden Central Supervisory Union for the past four years, will retire at the end of this month. With the unified school district starting July 1, DeNova will be CCSU’s final superintendent. (Photo by Colin Flanders)

Judy DeNova’s bucket list will be a little shorter next month.

After taking no more than a week off during her four-decade career — the last four years as the superintendent of the Chittenden Central Supervisory Union — DeNova will usher in retirement by learning to fly fish off the Kenai Peninsula, basking for a month in the Alaskan solitude.

Even as her career winds down, the pursuit for growth continues. It’s a feeling DeNova traces back to her own journey as a child in central New York, when, despite all odds, she found her passion.

One day, her older sister returned from school with a bout of chicken pox, just one of a slew of childhood ailments she’d contract.

The disease spread through the household and infected DeNova’s mother, who was pregnant at the time. She miscarried and was told there was so much scar tissue she’d never bear another child.

But she did — two, in fact — allowing DeNova to look after her new brother and sister, cementing a love for child development during her most formative years.

“I just loved watching the first step, the first word,” she said.

She would go on to pursue a career in education, leading to a degree in elementary and special education with a minor in psychology. After a year as an assistant director and teacher at a Michigan daycare, DeNova moved to Maine, where she taught as a special educator for the next 13 years.

With a family of her own, she moved to Vermont to be closer to home and became a principal in Bakersfield. Four years later, she moved to Westford, where she served as a principal for 12 years.

“You know their families, you know their grandparents, you know their learning styles and you know how to make decisions around placements,” she said. “You just know the kids.”

She also realized the importance of decision-making on an educational continuum — understanding how policies for 3- and 4-year-olds affect the type of students these children become. So after former CCSU chief Mike DeWeese convinced her to try out an associate superintendent role for a year, one of her first initiatives was a full-day preschool program. This year’s graduating class will be the last to have the half-day model.

While her career arc pulled her further from the classroom, DeNova learned how to lead through others, too. One of the best ways to do so, she said, is by listening. She understood how isolated principals can feel, so she set up monthly walk-throughs, where she toured the halls to hear about their struggles and successes.

Since then, she’s implemented a new breakfast program, helped write guidelines for better lunches and overseen the start of a restorative justice program and the growth of several academies in Essex High School.

The shift to the district’s top post wasn’t always easy, she said. She learned how changes in education are often met with skepticism, but the challenges also cemented a mantra that’s withstood time: “When I’m faced with controversy, I’ve always been able to say: ‘What’s best for kids?’” she said.

When a group of parents spoke against CCSU’s decision to allow bathroom use based on gender identity last year, DeNova stuck to this belief despite criticism. Now, some parents are still thanking her for the decision, she said.

Throughout the most difficult choices, DeNova said she’s been energized by how much the community supports its schools.

“They expect the best and they give it the best, and I’m not just talking about tax dollars. They’re there. You go to our games, you go to our plays, you go to the STEM events — the auditorium is full. That support makes a difference,” she said.

Judy DeNova shows off a lime green hat that she used to wear during emergency drills. The hat has since been replaced with a vest and now takes up residency on her bookshelf. (Photo by Colin Flanders)

It’s led to one of DeNova’s fondest achievements: The overwhelmingly favorable vote by Essex, Essex Jct. and Westford to become the first unified district under Act 46, the landmark education law that incentivizes school mergers.

Essex Westford School District begins official operation this July, meaning DeNova will end her tenure as CCSU’s final school chief. A roadside sign about the unification vote still sits in front of her desk.

She said the new entity, with its single school board, will make the position of superintendent manageable.

“It feels great to ride out of town with the beginning of that accomplishment,” she said.

Yet the work to make it a reality has taken its toll. Every morning, Ben Dickie, DeNova’s executive assistant, says he’s happy to see her back in the office. She’s working two jobs, he said, and she even has two separate calendars to show for it.

“How she continues to do that and come back day to day, I’m not going to lie, it amazes me,” Dickie said.

Perhaps that’s why DeNova’s retirement does feel a bit like recapturing childhood. No more mornings spent scarfing down breakfast in the car before another 15-hour day. No more dinners snuck in before a night meeting with one of the five different boards she answered to this year.

Perhaps more profound will be the relief from assuring safety across the district, she said, a fear that takes many forms when responsible for nearly 3,000 children. But it’s children she will miss the most. She will miss the harmony of chorus concerts, the culmination of capstones and the magical moments when students find their own connection to learning.

By this time next month, she will wake up without an obligation in sight. Maybe she will even turn her phone off for an hour or two. She will fill her days wading around, she said, perfecting the cast as she imagines shapes in the clouds, slowing down to a speed of life she’s long forgotten.

From there, she has no idea.

“And I like it that way,” she said.