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Back to School in Joplin, Missouri

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Many of us are grumbling about the price of school supplies these days, or fretting over the details of lunchboxes and backpacks. For the families of more than 6,500 public schoolchildren in Joplin, Missouri, filling a backpack with the right school supplies is one task they don’t have to worry about this fall. They’ve already had enough to deal with.
New High School Center Inside Joplin Mall

“We’re trying to take that off the parents’ list, and we have done it,” explains school spokesperson Jim Dunn. Each student returning to Joplin Public Schools this fall will receive a free backpack filled with grade-appropriate supplies.  High school students will receive their own new laptop computer.  And 11th and 12th graders will attend a newly constructed learning center inside the local mall that contains state-of-the-art design. “We’re hoping to take a step into the future with this,” says Dunn.  The organization called Bright Futures and countless other local and national sources of help have come together to get students refocused on learning.

Local school-aged children and their loved ones were among the 160 who lost their lives in May’s disastrous tornado.  The feelings are still too raw for everyone to be settled on how and where a permanent memorial will be placed.  Because the storm destroyed three of the city’s school buildings, including the high school,   school officials have been busy all summer renovating available buildings to fit classroom needs. In addition to creating a new high school inside the mall, crews have converted a warehouse into a new middle school and readied other school buildings for new uses.

Children were offered an extended summer session to help fill the gap between the last school year that was cut short and the new one with all of its changes.  An incoming 1st grader I spoke with was happy for the chance to reconnect with teachers and friends this summer.  He’s happy that he’ll still be attending Irving Elementary and seeing familiar faces.  But he doesn’t fully understand that he won’t be going to the same building.  Parents and instructors are calling it “Irving at Washington” to include the name of the new location, as they try to maintain as much normalcy as possible.
Devastated Joplin Neighborhood in August 2011
To view the landscape of the nearly seven-mile-long disaster corridor, even after two months of cleanup work, it still looks much like the war zone that many described right after the tornado.  On the scorching hot August afternoon when I visited, one demolition crew was still clearing the remains of a house, while a nearby lot showed the hopeful sign of a newly laid block foundation.  Red Cross volunteer David Harbour said two hydration vehicles had returned shortly after noon, because it was too hot for the volunteer workers they supported to be out in the heat.  There remains much to be done, just as the federal government is scaling back the amount of help it gives, leaving Missouri to pick up more of the demolition costs.  The city is asking residents to please leave their empty lots clean and safe of hazards.
Residential Downtown Joplin in August 2011
A blue and white “Rebuild Joplin” sign tries to brighten up the desolate landscape. Over on busy Rangeline Road, larger signs declare that the Home Depot and Walmart also intend to rebuild and get back to business soon. Now that the Eagle has been painted large on the outside of the new high school facility, the community is declaring that students can count on getting back to school and moving on with their lives.  Even with the backpacks stuffed and a summer filled with donations of time and money, this community is just at the beginning of a long rebuilding process.  If any of us can spare a bit extra to go toward brightening up Joplin’s classrooms, the school system could still use a hand.  “The truth is we need the help,” says Dunn.  The links at, and can tell you more about going back to school in Joplin.

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