West Tisbury School welcomes principal Michael Halt home
West Tisbury School gave principal Michael A. Halt a heartfelt welcome home in a special assembly program on Monday afternoon, celebrating his safe return from a tour of duty in Iraq as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves.
Mr. Halt returned to the states at Port Hueneme, Calif., on Sept. 19. Although he preferred to keep his Island homecoming muted on Monday, Sept. 24, he called West Tisbury School Sept. 27, to let everyone know he would stop by at noon. Accompanied by school superintendent James Weiss, Mr. Halt arrived at the school to find children, teachers, and staff lining the sidewalk, waiting to envelop him in hugs as soon as he got out of his car.
On Monday this week, yellow ribbon bows bedecked the railings at the school entrance and a colorful collage of brightly colored posters decorated one of the gymnasium walls. Rick Bausman, who teaches a drum workshop at the school, led a group of about 35 seventh graders in a pulsating prelude played with drums, bells, and maracas as students filed into the gym around 2 pm for the assembly.
Principal Michael Halt was reunited Sept. 27 with his West Tisbury School students, after a tour of duty in Iraq. Photo by Bob Lane
"This is the moment we've all been waiting for, for the last seven and a half months," declared assistant principal Bob Lane, as Mr. Halt walked onto the stage to a standing ovation from students, parents, teachers, school staff, and community members.
Mr. Lane asked for a moment of silence to remember "the 3,801 homecomings of servicemen and servicewomen that are the opposite of what we are experiencing today."
Former Lance Corporal Woodrow Williams, USMC, dressed in his military uniform, told Mr. Halt, "We cannot thank you enough for the honor, courage, and commitment that you have shown your fellow soldiers, your Island, your country."
Mr. Lane assured Mr. Halt that while he was gone, he was not forgotten. During his absence, Mr. Lane explained, students in teacher Victoria Phillips's after-school program had created a map headed with the words, "Where in the world is Mike?" to keep track of his location. Mr. Lane credited Mr. Halt for "a teachable moment that lasted seven and a half months while traveling thousands of miles."
Mr. Halt kept in touch with his students through Internet blog entries in which he described his experiences as he traveled to Al Taqaddum, Al Asad, Ramadi, and Fallujah. As he moved from place to place over the past several months, students hung a cardboard figure with a photograph of Mr. Halt's face onto the map at his corresponding locations. At the assembly, eighth grader Clara Corjulo and seventh grader Justin Smith moved Mr. Halt's cardboard likeness back to Martha's Vineyard on the map, which was displayed onstage.
Chloe Loftfield and Kate Sudarsky express the shared view of West Tisbury School students and faculty. Photo by Ralph Stewart
"I can't imagine myself being happier or in a better place," Mr. Halt said in his remarks. "My time away was made much easier by all the love and support you've given me."
Superintendent James Weiss said he offered to give Mr. Halt some time off before returning to school, but the dedicated principal chose to return after a few days instead of a few weeks. "I guess Mike doesn't fish the derby - I would have taken that time," Mr. Lane joked.
Noting that "it took two people to hold down the fort" in Mr. Halt's absence, Mr. Weiss thanked retired Edgartown School principal Ed Jerome for serving as acting principal from January through June and retired educator Daniel McCarthy for serving over the summer and through September.
Students Hannah Webster, Caitlin Serpa, Cooper Chapman, and Justin Smith welcomed Mr. Halt back as representatives of the Student Council. Special musical tributes to Mr. Halt included a touching welcome home song sung by the entire school, with a solo part by Darby Patterson. The teachers and staff sang a rousing rendition of the theme to "Welcome Back, Kotter," a popular television show from the 1970s.
A slide show with accompanying music by technology specialist teacher Valerie Becker, which Mr. Halt watched with rapt attention, recapped the students' activities while he was away, up through the beginning of the new school year.
At the assembly's end, students lined up to give Mr. Halt high-fives, handshakes, hugs, and posters as they left. One letter signed by several students and hung on the gym wall poignantly summed up their feelings about their principal's presence: "You bring happiness to our school. You make the school fun. We like the way you stop into the classrooms frequently. We like when you eat with us at lunch. We appreciate the way you greet everyone in the lobby. We feel safe with you in the school."
Where in the world is Mike? The real thing - in front of "cardboard Mike" - enjoyed his welcome home assembly.
As a reservist, Mr. Halt serves as a military advisor to the U.S. Navy Seabees, who perform construction work for the military, in Newport, R.I. His unit was activated for service in Operation Iraqi Freedom in January 2007. Mr. Halt sent a letter home to West Tisbury School parents on Jan. 3, informing them of his mobilization. On Jan. 8, the Up-Island Regional School District committee voted to approve his military leave and to cover the difference between his salary and his base military pay while he fulfilled his service obligation.
Posted to the Naval Construction Battalion Center in Port Hueneme, Calif., Mr. Halt arrived on Jan. 15 to undergo training and also train Seabees who would be going to Iraq. When he received his orders, Mr. Halt was told he should expect to spend six to seven months at Port Hueneme, followed by six to seven months in Iraq.
Instead, he was sent with the first group of Seabees from his unit to go to Iraq in March. His family and the Island community were thrilled that the change in plans would mean an earlier homecoming for him.
Mr. Halt returns to his job with a one-year contract, which is the same for all Up-Island Regional School District (UIRSD) administrators for the 2007-2008 school year, Mr. Weiss said. In June, when it was expected that Mr. Halt would be away for 12 to 14 months, the UIRSD committee decided on the one-year contract, "It just made sense to give everyone a one-year contract, because who knew what was going to happen," said Mr. Weiss.
When Mr. Weiss was asked if the contract decision might represent a first step in possibly consolidating the West Tisbury School and Chilmark School principal jobs into one, he said, "I wouldn't read anything into the fact that they got one-year contracts, in terms of that."
Mr. Halt was appointed principal at West Tisbury School in 2004, after serving as assistant principal at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) since 2000. His wife Laurie is the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for Martha's Vineyard Public Schools. Her three children, Mr. Halt's stepchildren, include Cooper Johnson and Connor Johnson, who attend MVRHS, and Maggie Johnson, who attends Tisbury School.