The 33 eighth graders at the West Tisbury School aren’t the only ones moving on to high school. Their principal, Michael Halt, an Island educator and administrator since 1997, is gearing up for a major transition of his own. Mr. Halt’s last day is June 28. Then he will pack up his truck and head for California, where, in the fall, he will start as principal of the San Clemente High School.
“We are all graduating and going to high school together,” Mr. Halt said on Wednesday afternoon, just back from the eighth grade graduation rehearsal at the Agricultural Hall. “It’s a nice little symmetry.”
On the surface, the two scholastic worlds he straddles couldn’t be more different. San Clemente high school enrolls about 3,000 teenagers and the West Tisbury school has 256 elementary and middle school students. San Clemente is located in California, in a large school district. The West Tisbury School is small and intimate. San Clemente’s mascot is a triton, a mythological sea god; West Tisbury’s is a hawk, a creature o f the air.
But Mr. Halt sees parallels.
“In many ways, it’s a community similar to the Vineyard,” he said. “It’s a beach community, the schools are a big part of the community itself and the socioeconomic situation is similar.”
He began his teaching career in Palm Springs, Calif., where he taught high school social studies. When he moved to the Island, he took a position teaching history at the regional high school and quickly moved up the ranks to become assistant principal.
Mr. Halt visited the nationally-ranked high school in San Clemente in mid-May and accepted the position shortly after. But he’s no stranger to accelerated decision-making. He took the job as West Tisbury principal in 2004, less than a month before school started. He originally intended to stay one year and then apply for the position of principal of the high school.
“Within a few months I quickly fell in love with the place,” he said. This year’s eighth graders were in kindergarten at the time.
Mr. Halt had previously considered high school to be the “pinnacle” of teaching, having only taught older students. But he soon came to appreciate the magic of elementary and middle school learning. “One of the things I have loved about being at a K-8 school is that [the students] don’t hide their enthusiasm for learning,” he said with a smile. “That always captivated me.”
Over the course of his nine-year tenure, school MCAS scores have “soared” to the 97th percentile and the school has adopted a social emotional learning curriculum called Responsive Classroom. Earlier this year, the school received the governor’s award for academic excellence. Mr. Halt also oversaw the development of a community-based lunch program at the school, which serves local foods including vegetables from the school garden planted and tended by students.
He is quick to say that the school’s growth is a result of the hard work of teachers, administrators, parents and kids. “To be successful and make sure the school’s successful, it’s got to be needs-based and community based,” he said, adding: “This school has accomplished great things in the time I have been here.
“As I go back to high school, that is one thing I will bring with me, that breadth of experience of seeing how it all comes together — how the teachers take kids from the point where they can’t read to where they are ready for high school. It opens up the aperture completely to every form of teaching possible.” He will also bring with him the memory of the students’ excitement when they rush into the schoolhouse at the beginning of a day. “There are very few feelings like it in the world,” he said. His tenure also presented leadership challenges. Mr. Halt, a member of the Marine Corps Reserves, has been mobilized for active duty three times since 9/11, including two deployments during his years at West Tisbury, to Iraq and Afghanistan. He estimates that the school saw as many as nine interim principals during his term, which he admits was difficult for the community. He has since moved to a non-deploying unit in the department of education and training. At age 48, he is coming up on 30 years of service in the Marine Corps, the maximum term allowed. As a search begins for a new principal and the last days of school wind down, he said he is confident that his successor will pick up where he leaves off. “This school needs somebody who understands this school, who’s been a member of this school and who can bring leadership and stability to the school,” he said. “I am comforted by the fact that . . . I do believe that leadership is in place. I don’t think it’s going to be a hard decision for the school community to make.” Mr. Halt’s wife, Laurie, a fourth-generation Islander who currently serves as assistant superintendent, will move with him and seek employment in the same school district. Their children all attended school on the Island. “This place will always be home,” Mr. Halt said. “In many ways, I feel like I’m 20 years old all over again, stepping away from my home, and starting all over again. “I guess, in a word, I’ll miss everything.”