Island educator ready to set sail after four decades

Posted May 05, 2012, at 3:50 p.m.
Last modified May 06, 2012, at 6:12 p.m.
Barney Hallowell, who has been an integral part of the North Haven School for nearly 40 years, including the past 21 as principal, will retire next month.
Barney Hallowell, who has been an integral part of the North Haven School for nearly 40 years, including the past 21 as principal, will retire next month.

NORTH HAVEN, Maine — Barney Hallowell was fired twice from school jobs in Penobscot Bay, but next month he will retire with his head held high and filled with pride over the accomplishment of the school that he has been an integral part of for nearly 40 years.

Hallowell, 70, will retire June 30 as principal of the North Haven School. He has held that post for 21 years, after 18 years as an instructor at the school.

“I feel proud of what the school has done,” Hallowell said recently in an interview at the Island Institute in Rockland.

Hallowell has been a lifelong believer in the importance of hands-on teaching as the best way to educate students. The community has embraced that philosophy, although that was not always the case.

Hallowell’s teaching career in Maine began at the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School, which operated classes at Hurricane Island in Penobscot Bay. He lived two years on that remote island. Hallowell, who also was a diver, helped build a containment pool in a deep quarry on the island.

In 1972, he was hired as a teacher for the Vinalhaven School. But, he said, the board was not pleased with his teaching methods and voted to fire him after his first year.

The superintendent of Vinalhaven that year also was the superintendent for the neighboring island of North Haven.

“The superintendent told me my teaching philosophy was better suited for North Haven than Vinalhaven,” Hallowell recalls.

But even on North Haven, there were people who were not happy with his philosophy. He noted the board voted 3-2 to hire him, with some concerned about his Hurricane Island experience and the fact that he was a summer person.

Hallowell had spent every summer as a child on North Haven.

He said he wanted students active in the community rather than sitting in rows of chairs listening to a teacher in front of the classroom.

“Students need to be actively engaged in their education,” Hallowell maintained.

In 1992, Hallowell was hired as teaching principal of the school, which has students from kindergarten through 12th grade. The current enrollment of the school is 62 students, although over Hallowell’s tenure it has reached as high as 100.

He said teacher turnover was high when he was hired as principal, and teachers were the object of scrutiny and outright disdain. But Hallowell had faith in the school and wanted the community to know.

He said after three years as principal, there was a backlash from some members of the community who felt that there was not enough emphasis on the three R’s — reading, writing and ’rithmetic. In the town meeting elections of 1996, those who opposed his methods elected a majority of the school board that agreed with their views.

In the next school year, the majority of the board came up with a plan to hire a full-time principal as a way to get rid of Hallowell. Supporters of Hallowell and his teaching philosophy formed a group called the School Watchdog Association. They accused Hallowell’s opponents on the board of holding secret meetings, including ones off the island.

At the March 1997 town meeting, 214 people turned out on an island that then had a year-round population of 381. A Hallowell supporter won a seat on the board. But by a 3-2 vote, the board voted not to renew his contract for 1997-98, and instead offered him a teaching post at the same salary.

Hallowell said he could have accepted the decision but instead he decided to fight, not just to keep his job but to preserve what he believed was a strong school system. He said he was offered a financial settlement to leave the principal job, but his love for the school was too great.

The controversy over his firing sharply divided the community. There were acts of vandalism and reports of threats between islands filed with police. The town administrator resigned, citing the conflict.

Hallowell went to court and in July 1997, Justice John Atwood agreed to issue a temporary restraining order to prevent the board from terminating Hallowell. The Maine Department of Education attempted to intervene and then-Commissioner J. “Duke” Albanese urged the two sides to go to mediation.

“To describe the island of North Haven as a community in turmoil over the last several months is an understatement,” the commissioner stated in a report to the island.

Eventually, Hallowell’s contract was renewed.

While hard feelings remained for a time, eventually the community healed.

One act that brought the community together was a play titled “Islands.” The director of the play was John Wulp of neighboring Vinalhaven, who had moved to that island after being a Tony Award-winning producer on Broadway. Hallowell and Wulp bumped into each other on the mainland and began talking. The producer agreed to help the North Haven School with its drama program.

After the controversy over Hallowell’s contract renewal died down, Wulp helped produce “Islands,” in which a majority of students along with many community members came together to create the play about life on their island.

That play ultimately was taken to Broadway, where it was performed shortly after the terrorist attack on New York City.

Wulp this week praised Hallowell’s service to the community.

“I think he has done an incredible job in running a very fine liberal school,” Wulp said.

Wulp, who worked with the full student population on North Haven from 1994 through 2005, said Hallowell’s chief strength was his open-mindedness to new ideas.

Wulp noted that when Hallowell first hired him to work on drama programs, through an independent arts and enrichment organization that Hallowell had helped start, many of the students thought the former Broadway producer was not immediately welcomed.

“But Barney stuck with me,” the 85-year-old Wulp noted.

Since those divisive days in the mid-1990s, Hallowell has continued to work hard to have a top performing school. More than 10 years ago the school was accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges — the smallest public school to receive that status. The accreditation took two years of preparation and a tremendous amount of work and creativity, he noted.

One example of the creativity is how North Haven met the requirement that a high school have a certified librarian, he noted. The school worked with the Camden Public Library to have one of their certified librarians come over once a week to be considered as the person overseeing the library. The school later worked out a similar arrangement with the Rockland Public Library.

He said during the accreditation process, the school stuck to one principle.

“We decided we would do the accreditation process but be true to ourselves,” Hallowell said.

Hallowell said he is a believer in getting the students off the island on different occasions to interact with other students.

On the day of the interview, Hallowell had accompanied the high school students to a performance of the movie “Bully” that was being shown at Oceanside High School East in Rockland.

Support for the schools remains strong. The community raised $6.3 million through private donations to build the new school that opened in 2008. The annual budgets of the schools are supported strongly by residents. He noted 80 percent of property taxes that support the schools are paid for by seasonal residents.

Hallowell said he decided this would be the year to retire, because he has turned 70 but also because he has a daughter who is graduating from the school this year, the first of his six children to attend the North Haven school from kindergarten through graduation. His youngest daughter is an eighth-grader.

Hallowell plans an active retirement. He first plans to participate in the 180-mile Trek Across Maine bicycle event, and then will sail a boat to Antigua and the Virgin Islands.

His goals include obtaining his captain’s license from the Coast Guard, receiving his superintendent’s certification and obtaining his motorcycle license. The last goal will be the first he will attain. His children bought him a motorcycle for his birthday in March and he planned to take the test Saturday.

Hallowell said the school already is prepared for the transition. The board has hired Amy Marx, a Camden-Rockport High School graduate, as its new principal.

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