- Associated Press - Friday, October 3, 2014

JOPLIN, Mo. (AP) - Vice President Joe Biden praised Joplin on Friday for its “grit and determination” at the dedication of a combined high school and vocational school that replaces one destroyed by a deadly tornado more than three years ago.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon joined Biden at the ceremony as the community marked the completion of the last of its major school rebuilding projects after the country’s deadliest single tornado in decades. The 480,000-square-foot school opened Sept. 2 for more than 2,200 students and staff.

“I am here because you are the heart and soul of America,” Biden said. “We never bend, we never break, we never stop, and we always rebuild.”

On the parking lot, an American flag hung from the outstretched ladder of a fire truck. Two live eagles were there because in the first home football game after the tornado, a single eagle flew over the football field to symbolize that the students - like the bird who returns to the same nesting spot each year - would be home together again. The eagle is also the school’s mascot.

The city’s school system was hit particularly hard by the May 2011 tornado that killed 161 people and flattened thousands of homes and businesses. Seven students and one employee were among the victims, including a senior who was pulled from his car by winds on his way home from attending the Joplin High School graduation ceremony. Friday’s dedication ceremony included a moment of silence to remember those who died.

The district scrambled to rebuild with federal money, donations, insurance money and a $62 million bond issue, cobbling together a hodgepodge of temporary locations while work was underway. Seniors and juniors took classes in a converted big-box store in a shopping mall, while freshmen and sophomores were in a building across town.

The $121.5 million building features storm shelters large enough to house students and the community. It also incorporated elements from the old building, including sculptures cut out of the trees that stood on the old high school’s property. The school also redid its curriculum so students can take courses that prepare them for college or a career. The building is textbook-free, and students do their work on laptops.

Duncan said that he visited students in the mall school soon after it opened and was struck by the community’s “toughness.”

“I left inspired and full of hope,” Duncan said. “Three years later, it blows me away but honestly I’m not surprised. In that one day I had a sense of the fiber of the community. It would be much easier to build a high school that was just here in the past and replicated that. But the community decided the children of Joplin deserved much better. They built a high school not for yesterday, not for today but for tomorrow.”

Steven Arfin, 15, of Joplin, still recalls seeing the remnants of the school after the tornado hit. “It was crazy,” he said. “Words can’t describe it.” Now, more than three years later, the new school “means a future,” he said.

As part of the dedication, students, parents and others attempted to set a world record for the longest ribbon used in a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The 6.5-mile ribbon symbolized the tornado’s path through Joplin. The school hopes to find out in a few weeks whether it holds the record, said district spokeswoman Kelli Price.

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