JOPLIN, Mo. | Debbie Fort just wanted to take a look around, peek inside classrooms and again feel what it’s like to be where children are learning.
So one morning in late May, three days after a tornado wiped away one-third of the city, including the elementary school she led, Fort stopped at a school in neighboring Webb City.
“Can I just walk your hallways?” the Joplin principal asked. She wasn’t looking for reminders of what the EF5 tornado stole on May 22, but of what she and others in Joplin would be pushing to restore.
Fort walked past decorated bulletin boards and posters. Eyed stacks of books. Watched teachers as they called on eager kids with hands stretched high.
“I needed that,” Fort says now. “I needed to see the kids and the books and the learning. I needed to know that one day we will be there again.”
That one day is almost here. Despite the debris that still litters Joplin and the hovering uncertainty of just how many families will rebuild, Fort and other educators are counting the days to school.
At this point, students are expected to return to classrooms on Aug. 17, right on schedule, even though six of the district’s 19 school buildings, including the high school, were destroyed. Three other schools were heavily damaged.
Most of the students will go to a different school than they did last year, many in refurbished or retrofitted facilities. A few classes, and science labs, will be in trailers.
And because so many families lost their homes, some students now live outside the Joplin district in rental properties or FEMA trailers and will be bused in from towns as far as a county over.
Yet, even with the distractions, they’ll try to pick up where they left off May 20, two weeks before summer vacation. Two days later, at 5:41 p.m. that Sunday, the tornado tore through Joplin, killing 160 people and injuring more than 900.
Among the dead: one school secretary and seven students, including one young man who was sucked from his vehicle on his way home from his graduation ceremony.
Since that night, many doubted the district would be able to have school for all its 7,700 children this fall, much less open on time. How could it, with so many schools damaged or gone?
The countdown begins
Superintendent C.J. Huff was finishing his third year in Joplin when the tornado hit.
In his first years, he has emphasized technology and increased training for teachers. Faculty members say he has asked for opinions and listened. And on the first day of school, he goes to all of the district’s 13 elementary schools and has his picture taken with each kindergartner, wishing them luck in their learning journey.
Now, in a matter of minutes, half his district had been destroyed, families were homeless and needing help, and teachers, too, were dealing with personal and professional tragedy. Everyone, it seemed, was looking to him for answers, direction.
Those thoughts raced through his mind the night after the tornado as he lay awake on an office cot. Already the pressure to rebuild was mounting.
“I wanted what everyone wanted,” he says now. “Getting the kids back in school is the best thing we can do for our kids, our families, and give our community the best chance for rebuilding.”
By the next morning, after he created his first post-storm organizational chart in the middle of the night, the countdown to school began.
Just 86 days.
“Somebody told me it couldn’t be done,” said Huff, who turned 41 the day before the tornado. “Which is all it takes to get me going.”
But before he could focus everyone on rebuilding, the district had to finish accounting for each of the 3,000 students who lived in the tornado’s path. The uncertainty of where the children were and whether they had survived was eating at people.
Teachers and volunteers worked the phones and Facebook and walked neighborhoods. For Irving Elementary, where Fort had been principal for 13 years, teachers used a white board to keep track of the students they had confirmed were OK.
When a grade had every student accounted for, a smiley face went up. Two days after the tornado, when the school had accounted for all grades, someone wrote “Thank You Jesus!” on the board.
Three days later, at 3:16 p.m. May 27, Huff received a text from one of his assistants. He’s kept the text on his cellphone as a reminder of that moment.
“The last student on our list has been accounted for.”
That’s when the main focus — of administrators, faculty and staff — switched to Aug. 17, the day students were to report for classes.
“We know how to have school,” Huff remembers thinking at the time. “I knew if we had people focused on that we could get that done.
“When we hit that day, we’ll send a message loud and clear that nothing can get us down.”
Finding the space
Some admit that in those early days they were skeptical classes could start on time. Sure, they knew what the district could accomplish when teachers and administrators pulled together. In the past few years, the district had raised test scores and improved the graduation rate.
But to find and create learning space for 4,200 kids — 54 percent of the district — in 12 weeks?
“I thought, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to do this,’ ” said Kerry Sachetta, the high school principal. “I didn’t think it could be done.”
Administrators looked at district buildings. Fort’s Irving Elementary students could go to Washington Elementary, a building that sat vacant before the storm. Layouts were similar. The school was big enough for Irving’s 300 students. Good fit.
Two other elementary schools would merge so another, which was destroyed, could have a building.
Early on, administrators suffered a setback when they realized East Middle School, less than 2 years old, sustained so much damage that it would cost nearly as much to repair as it did to build. So they needed yet another facility, one that would hold 600 students.
When the district ran out of property to use, it turned to buildings available in the city.
Sachetta knew he couldn’t keep all the high schoolers together. No place in town could hold 2,200 students. They’d have to be split up.
Freshmen and sophomores could go to the Memorial Education Center, which had been used as a high school, middle school and junior college.
But what about the upperclassmen?
One thought was the Northpark Mall and the old Shopko facility, a long-vacant box store across the parking lot from Macy’s and Sears.
High school at the mall?
“I was like, ‘Oh great, he’s going to be out shopping or at the food court when he’s supposed to be in class,’ ” said parent Laura Land, whose older child will be a junior this fall.
But she and other doubters had no clue what administrators were cooking up with architects and contractors. Land now is becoming a believer.
The box store at the mall has become a 21st century high school.
“When they see it, they’re just totally amazed,” Sachetta said.
Inside, there are movable walls to better use space and wide corridors where students can plop down on the carpet, plug in their laptops — which every high school student will receive — and go to work.
Instead of a gym, the school for 11th and 12th graders will have a fitness center. It’ll also have a coffee shop run by business students.
“When we first found out we were going to the mall for school, I just thought my senior year was going to be the biggest joke,” said Emma Cox, 17. Then she took a tour of the new facility earlier this month.
“It looks like they put so much thought into it,” she said. “If I didn’t know I was at the mall, I would think I was in a regular school.”
Because the tornado has robbed the community of so much, senior Brad White had all but resigned himself to just “get through” his senior year and prepare for college. Now, after talking with architects, he’s looking forward to school more than ever.
“Teachers and advisers are trying to make us have a great senior year,” said White, 17. “They’re doing the best they can with what they’re given. I think a lot of them for not giving up on the school after all of this.”
Crews retrofitted another building to replace the district’s technical center, which draws students from several area high schools. The district also leased the city’s Memorial Hall for athletic practices, physical education classes and other programs. Because the storm spared the football stadium, the first home game should go on as planned in early September. Only with a little more fanfare.
The goal was to get all the facilities secured by July 1. The district completed that June 10.
Since then it’s been steady progress. On top of daily two-hour meetings with his leadership team, Huff holds weekly updates for faculty and staff.
Some teachers say the meetings turn into pep rallies, with the superintendent encouraging teachers as if they were girding for the big Friday night game.
“This is our moonwalk,” Huff tells district employees. “We’re doing something that’s never been done.”
The pep-infused updates are working, said high school business teacher Kristi McGowen. There are few doubters anymore.
“He’s never said, ‘Oh, I hope we can do it,’ ” McGowen said. “From Day One he said, ‘We’re going to make this happen.’ ”
Taking cues from kids
From the beginning, the focus has been on the students. When administrators realized what families faced, trying to rebuild homes and lives, they expanded summer school.
Instead of three weeks, summer school went from June 13 to July 29.
“We knew kids would be safe there, have something to do,” Huff said, “while moms and dads figured out where they would soon live.”
Summer school registration jumped 25 percent.
And during the session, counselors were on hand to talk with students.
Amy Jump’s two elementary schoolers would come home and tell her what they had discussed that day.
“Some days when I asked them about it, they didn’t want to talk about it,” Jump said. “And that’s OK.”
Parents and teachers know to take cues from the children.
Land says she and her two teenagers talk about what they went through the night they lost their home and nearly everything they owned. The teens, along with Land’s niece, piled into the bathroom. Land lay on top to protect them.
“We try to keep it as open as possible,” she said. “If someone wants to talk about it, we talk about it. Sometimes we cry about it.”
The scars are there, from the oldest students to the youngest. Educators still don’t know how deep.
In summer school, a first-grader arrived late and found that his class wasn’t in the room he expected. He was scared and didn’t know what to do, said Fort, who worked at one of the summer school locations. Teachers found him hiding under a table.
“That’s because that’s what he did in the tornado,” Fort said.
The district has hired five more counselors for the next school year, and many faculty members have trained in how to deal with crises.
Fourth-grade teacher Shelly Tarter, who taught 17 years at Irving Elementary, knows there’ll be times in class when she may have to stop the lesson and just talk with the kids about their fears.
“It’s very important to let them know someone is interested in what they have to say and how they feel,” Tarter said. “How they feel now and how they felt then.
“That’s the best thing we can do for them is listen to them.”
Life goes on
Every day on her way home from summer school, Fort stops by Washington Elementary, Irving’s new home. She can’t stay away.
Walking the halls makes her feel more at home, familiar with where she and her teachers are scheduled to welcome students in just 17 days.
In the first days after the storm, Fort had one request for Huff.
“I don’t care where you put us, just keep us together,” Fort remembers saying. “It was critically important that we stay together. We truly are a family.”
It’s critical not only for the staff, but the students, Tarter said. Same goes at other schools where administrators are trying to keep classmates and teachers together, though there are no guarantees it will work in every case.
“It gives the kids a sense of security, not having to adapt to someone who is new,” Tarter said. “There already are so many things that are changing in their lives, we need to keep things as consistent as we can.”
It’s why Tarter wants to re-create her fourth-grade classroom, which will be in a trailer outside Washington, to look like her room at Irving, with the same colors and theme. She wants it to have the same music she’s played in her classroom for years — despite losing 150 CDs to the tornado.
In 17 days, she’ll be ready.
She and Fort still don’t know how many students will return.
For weeks, teachers and volunteers have been trying to contact every family to see which students are returning. About three-fourths of the 7,700 students have been contacted and nearly 92 percent say they plan to come back.
“Life goes on, and we’re going to come out stronger,” Fort said.
It’s what she tells her teachers. What they’ll tell the students.
And what Fort constantly tells herself.