Sometimes a school building is more than just a place to learn. After a tornado whipped through Joplin, Mo., in May 2011, destroying the town’s high school, the wrecked building was another sign of the devastation that had come to the community. Rebuilding the school became a matter of symbolic importance. Plans were drawn up overnight, and only 55 days after the tornado, the district’s juniors and seniors had a new school building—in a former shopping center.
In a town recovering from trauma, in a school that didn’t look quite like a school, rebuilding school spirit and a sense of community was an important first step. The walls are bedecked with the school’s mascot, an eagle.
“When they walked into a building that was ‘eagled up,’ full of school spirit, looking comfortable and different—I think that made a difference,” says Angela Besendorfer, an assistant superintendent in the 7,400-student district.
“The transition would have been a lot harder if we’d been sitting in a big metal room,” says Hank Millard, 18, a senior who plans to study architecture. “The subtle things about it helped. There’s a lot of trust, and a lot of interaction between students, a lot of collaboration. That probably helped us get a sense of normalcy.”
Creating a temporary school allowed Joplin High to take risks in the design that it might not have in a more permanent building, but Besendorfer says many of the interim building’s features will be replicated in the permanent building, which is being planned.
The building has small breakout rooms dubbed “think tanks,” and “info-links” where students can see each other’s computer screens projected on a shared screen (the school has also implemented a 1-to-1 laptop program).
Students no longer have lockers. The building that was destroyed had been built in the 1950s, and the hallways were often crowded and chaotic. The interim building has wide hallways—and storm shelters, which the old building lacked. All of those features will carry into the new building, which is slated to open in 2014.
The school’s shopping center roots mean it’s missing some elements that make learning pleasant: daylight, for one, and full-length walls to soundproof classes. Even so, there’s been a change in the atmosphere since students moved into the new building. Discipline problems and vandalism have gone down, says Besendorfer. The new building sent a message to the community, she says.
Students’ voices will also be part of the design process for the new high school building: There is even a Facebook page set up to collect students’ input on the design of the new high school.