- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 17, 2011

JOPLIN (AP) The trophy case by the front entrance is nearly empty. Classroom walls are mostly bare, and unopened boxes of textbooks, computer monitors and other equipment remain scattered throughout the building.

Signs of unfinished business remain at what is now Joplin High’s upper-level campus - a converted big-box retail store at the city’s mall, well outside the worst-hit areas from a late May tornado that killed 160 people, injured hundreds more and destroyed thousands of buildings, including the city’s only public high school.

On Wednesday, as Joplin students and teachers went back to school less than three months after the country’s single deadliest tornado in six decades cut the previous school year short, no one seemed to mind the shortcomings.

“You can’t pretend like nothing happened,” English teacher Brenda White said. “But everything is so new here. Every single thing that is this school is new and different.

“It’s going to take a while to build everything back, but books are a good start,” she said while stocking her classrooms with copies of “The Great Gatsby,” “The Kite Runner” and other literary staples, past and present.

The school system was hit especially hard by the May 22 tornado. Seven students and one employee were among the victims, including a senior pulled from his car by vicious winds on his way home from Joplin High’s Sunday afternoon graduation ceremony. Six school buildings were destroyed, including Joplin High. Seven other buildings were severely damaged.

School district leaders quickly realized they would play an outsized role in Joplin’s recovery, for reasons symbolic as much as practical.

They pulled together a hodge-podge of temporary locations for fall classes - from the old Shopko store at Northpark Mall to the recently vacated Missouri Department of Transportation district office where the superintendent and other administrators now work. Rival elementary schools combined, and a middle school found space in an industrial park.

Students arrived at the “mall school” Wednesday morning to a bevy of well-wishers holding Joplin High signs and lining the entrance road. Some met in modular classrooms, right next to a row of concrete-lined storm shelters. Others lingered in the hallways, reuniting with old friends.

They raved about the school’s collegelike feel, complete with Joplin Joe’s coffee bar and free laptops for each student thanks to a donation from the United Arab Emirates worth as much as $1 million.

Count their parents and adult relatives among the most impressed by the transformation.

“It just blows your mind,” said Pamela Berry, who accompanied her 17-year-old nephew to a Tuesday night open house. “I want to come back to high school.”

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, who toured the school Wednesday, encouraged students to take advantage of their new learning environment.

“I hope you use what has been given to you to lift the expectations of Joplin even higher,” he said. “While there’s been tremendous suffering, there are even greater expectations.”

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