Every morning and afternoon, Mary Ann Halboth, 63, known endearingly as International Academy of Flint’s favorite grandmother-figure, stands at the entrance near her “Word Wall” and greets hundreds of students as they file into their classrooms, and then later as they leave for the day.
Halboth purposefully elevates the academic culture by creatively sneaking in the students’ first lesson of the day – without them even realizing it.
Extraordinary. Trustworthy. Enthusiastic. Convince. Responsible.
“The kids look forward to seeing what the newest word is and it’s an easy and fun way to start the day by learning something right away,” says Halboth, a U of M-Flint graduate who formerly worked in the University’s English department and celebrates 44 years of marriage to retired Dr. Fremont Halboth – the husband she says is her best friend and supports her efforts to make a difference at the school.
“I’m here to help students improve their reading and language skills,” says Halboth, who began working at the tuition-free, college preparatory, SABIS-network, charter public school 12 years ago, when her own granddaughter attended the first kindergarten class in 1999.
Halboth is a MTSS (Multiple-Tiered Support System) paraprofessional who mainly receives kindergarten through fifth grade students who have been identified by staff as at-risk or as Halboth prefers to put it, “in need of a little nudging and encouragement.”
She addresses reading and language deficiencies by working on building a stronger reading foundation.
“I have a tremendous responsibility,” says Halboth. “I’m here to serve, not be served.” That belief is the bedrock of her method of supporting students through a whole-learning curriculum and focusing on alphabet recognition, letters, phonics, vocabulary, comprehension, styles of genre, using Lexia reading strategies and the world-class, Read Naturally Live program.
Students can and often graduate out of Halboth’s classroom, or return, when needed.
“I want to give my heart, soul, sweat and worry for the sake of the students.”
Mary Ann Halboth
Her gentle and encouraging methods evoke motivated students. “She helps me when I get things wrong,” says first-grader, Tiana. “She is nice to me and doesn’t yell. She is very kind and if we are good, she has great prizes.”
First-grade teacher, Michael Lynn, endorses Halboth as an asset to the students and teachers, alike.
“She is always welcoming to teachers, students, parents and visitors. She greets the entire school with a word of the day. That word is always a talking point and she provides the definition on a handheld whiteboard,” says Lynn, who, along with fellow staff members frequently seeks Halboth during the day for her calmness and wisdom when stress levels become unmanageable.
“She’s built trust with everyone,” says Lynn. “She’s an exceptional listener. What you say to her, stays with her.” He also says that people, from custodian to administration, know Halboth is genuine, non-judgmental, and loves them right where they are and works to build up and encourage their role, as a staff member and human being.
Her trait of confidentiality might explain why teachers flock to her – that, and her “safe chair.”
“She’s got this oversized, comfy and inviting chair in her office with soft lighting and a footstool,” croons Lynn. “It’s known as Miss Mary’s safe chair and when teachers have challenging days, it’s the first place they run to. It’s calming and quiet to be in her presence. When sitting in the safe chair, you get to unload, vent or ask her whether what you’re stressing out about is worth it. She’ll listen and then wisely tell you, ‘Nah, it’s not a big deal, move on.’ Or, she’ll offer advice. And then, somehow, you can get on with your day.”
Halboth and Lynn both live in the same zip code as the school and many of their students – 48503. “I see many of my students in my own neighborhood,” says Halboth. “It makes a difference when you see your students out of their uniforms or at the grocery store, and they get to see me as a regular person. I know more about their lives and challenges, and I just try to love ‘em.”
Halboth has many appealing qualities, but taking away the burdens of others is what she aims for the most.
“If I can help reduce stress for the teachers, I want to take it upon myself and free them so they can be happy and prosperous in their teaching roles,” says Halboth. “I want to give my heart, soul, sweat and worry for the sake of the students. We have such good people here and together, we make the lives of our students and the learning environment better.”
In June, Halboth will be seeking her own version of peace.
“I feel it was the Spirit who helped me realize I needed to be here a decade ago,” says Halboth. “The same Spirit is now telling me my work here is finished and it’s time for me to retire. I’m ready to spend more time with my husband, but I’ll miss and worry about these kids until I die.”
She laughs and says her husband has some fun retirement plans, which include running marathons, learning to swim and acquiring a foreign language.
This real-life mother of three and grandmother to eight is ready to greet a new chapter. “I’m looking forward to a new phase of life with simplicity and peace.”
Photography by Eric Dutro