JOPLIN, Mo. — The twister that laid waste to much of Joplin last month hit the school system especially hard: It killed seven students and one teacher and destroyed three school buildings, including the only public high school. Seven other buildings were badly damaged.
Now officials are trying to put the crippled district back in order, with only a couple of months to get everything working again before the fall term begins. Many classes will have to meet in vacant buildings. There are also computers to order, furniture to replace, water-logged lesson plans to rewrite — even dirt-encrusted books to salvage.
And the effort goes beyond accommodating students and teachers. In the aftermath, the resurrection of Joplin High and other public schools has become a rallying point for the whole community.
At the debris pile that used to be the high school, someone used duct tape to turn a sign missing all but the two letters “OP” into “HOPE.” In front of that sign are three wooden eagles — the school mascot — carved by a Tennessee artist from the remnants of oak trees that were sliced in two and stripped of their bark by the nation’s deadliest single tornado in six decades.
“Her feathers are ruffled, but she’s not dead,” reads a nearby spray-painted, cardboard sign.
Barely three weeks after the storm, summer school began last week. More than 1,600 elementary-school students alone enrolled — almost double the number from last year. The district added an extra month of classes for a session that was initially scheduled to end in early July. And unlike previous years, it’s offering free transportation.
“These children don’t have a home to live in,” said Irving Elementary School Principal Debbie Fort, whose school was one of those destroyed. “Parents know they need to get a routine back. Their lives have been turned upside-down.”
Because so many buildings were damaged or destroyed, half of the high school students will attend classes in an empty big-box store. Many middle school kids will go to a vacant warehouse in a far-flung industrial park. Some administrators will take over an old office of the state transportation department.
Signs of the tornado are visible even in schools that escaped any damage. At Stapleton Elementary, boxes of library books rescued from damaged buildings sit piled outside the main office. A 7-year-old boy matter-of-factly explains to a visitor why he’s on crutches — a piece of wooden shrapnel pierced his calf, requiring emergency surgery and a week in the hospital.
The twister killed more than 150 people. Immediately after the storm, Ms. Fort searched for missing teachers. Even now, two displaced families, including one of her faculty members, are staying at her home in nearby Webb City.
Yet for the most part, the rhythm of the school day is unchanged. For many students, the classroom offers a respite from troubles at home.
“The kids are just relieved to be back at something peaceful,” teacher Isaiah Basye said. “It gives them hope, to see that we’re not letting the tornado change us. We’re still here with open arms. This place is a haven.”
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