Just days before a massive tornado devastated their community last May, a group of Joplin, Mo., educators and other community members had a meeting about “21st-century learning.”
What should such learning look like in their community, they wondered. How does a school system pivot from a focus on student test scores to a focus on achievement measured in other ways?
Then May 22 arrived, bringing the catastrophic storm that ripped through the community of 50,000 in the southwest corner of the state. The tornado killed 161 people and destroyed six schools, including the city’s sole high school. Three other schools and the district administration building were damaged.
One year later, Joplin is preparing to break ground next week—on the anniversary of the tornado—forthat match the school district’s ambitions for the education it wants to provide its 7,800 students.
Expanding on the new view of learning Joplin had begun to explore just before the storm, the district has done away with traditional notions of school design. Its new schools will feature flexible classroom areas, including spaces where students can work independently or in small groups, called “think tanks.”
And Joplin High School and Franklin Technical High School, once housed in separate buildings, will be brought together in a new facility that will include five “career academies” where students can follow a college-preparatory academic path as well as take classes that lead directly to the work world.
“One of the facts that we’re facing is the high school that prepares every kid for college is not the high school we need anymore,” Assistant Superintendent Angie Besendorfer said. “We had begun to question that, but we were just touching the tip of the iceberg” before the devastation last year.
The district’s new middle and elementary schools are slated to be completed in December 2013, and the high school in August 2014. On May 21, the day before groundbreaking ceremonies, President Barack Obama will visit the community to give the commencement address to Joplin High School seniors.
The school architecture is just one of the major changes that came to the school district after the tornado hit. Last August, as the first school year after the storm got under way, the district distributed laptops to all of its high school students. The transition was embraced by some staff members and was rocky for others.
As with the change from textbooks to laptops, the changes discussed for the school architecture were challenging for some people, Ms. Besendorfer said.
“They wanted what we had back, so we had to work and move through the personal pieces of all that,” she said. “Each of our employees and our kids had their own personal trauma. It was a delicate dance.”
But at the same time, the upheaval caused by the storm gave Joplin the ability to look at schooling in a different way—a process that may have been slower to take root if the tornado had not happened, Ms. Besendorfer said.
“We’re living without things we thought we could never live without as a community,” she said. “And, having that happen to us, we’re now able to question things we never questioned before.”
One of the first steps Joplin educators and community members took was to visit other schools around the country to get an idea of how their architecture supported their academic programs. From October to December of last year, more than 60 teachers, administrators, and community members visited schools in eight states, cherry-picking ideas that they thought might work in Joplin.
Tobin D. Schultz, the co-chairman of the Joplin High School social studies department, was among the Joplin representatives who traveled to Texas, visiting six schools in three days. One school that stood out for Mr. Schultz was, a career academy in the Spring Independent School District, north of downtown Houston.
The school, which won a 2007 prize for school facility excellence given by the Council of Educational Facility Planners International, has a student-operated bank, coffee shop, and restaurant. Community members can visit the cosmetology program for a haircut from students in training. Other students work in an early-childhood program housed at the school.
Mr. Schultz said he texted his wife to tell her that he thought he had found the next school for their family. She asked him if they needed to prepare for a move. He said he told her no, “I think we’ll just build that in Joplin,” he said.
Bringing Classes Together
One element that community members agreed on is that Joplin High School should remain a comprehensive facility. Many of the career academies that they visited were small schools of choice, where students had to forgo extracurriculars to enroll.
“We’re going to combine the best of both worlds,” Mr. Schultz said.
In this February 2012 video, Technology Specialist Adam Bell describes how the Joplin, Mo., community and school district came together to rebuild the district’s educational technology infrastructure. For more about the district’s ed tech efforts in the tornado’s wake, read
The next step for the community was translating its dreams into a coherent structure. Chad Greer, a principal architect with the Joplin-based firm Corner, Greer, and Associates, had already used some of the ideas in the section of a Joplin shopping mall that currently houses the district’s 11th and 12th graders. The 9th and 10th graders are in a former warehouse.
The “mall school” has open spaces and conference rooms “where students can feel like it’s theirs,” Mr. Greer said. The entire look is closer to office space or a college campus than to a traditional high school.
“If you treat these students like they’re in college or in the business world, they will rise up to the occasion,” Mr. Greer said.
Community members hope the temporary mall facility will provide a smooth transition to the new high school. Mr. Greer said the new space will offer opportunities for students to see all the programs available to them; they might be able to walk past a classroom and see a welding lesson taking place, for example.
That element is exciting to Susan H. Adams, the director of human resources at Able Manufacturing & Assembly in Joplin, and one of the community members who visited schools. “What this new school is going to do is give every student the opportunity to try or to taste a couple of different careers,” Ms. Adams said.
The career academies available for students will focus on arts and communication; business and information technology; human services, which includes offerings such as Junior ROTC, culinary arts, and early-childhood programs; health sciences; and technical sciences.
Mr. Greer, who has designed other school facilities, said interest is growing in designing the built environment to reflect academic objectives.
But, he said, “it is going to be much more difficult for a district that is interested in moving that way to do so if they already have high schools,” due to the challenges in adapting existing structures.
Joplin voters approved a $62 million bond issue last month to support the construction of the new schools and the repair of the old facilities, but the vote just barely made the supermajority needed. There were 4,860 votes, or 57.64 percent, in favor of the bond to 3,571 votes against. The bond issue needed four-sevenths of the votes to pass, or 57.14 percent. The district has also received a little over $35 million in federal and state emergency aid.
With the money and architectural plans in place, Joplin now plans to embark on another re-examination of its practices—this time centered around how the district structures the school day. One idea, said Ms. Besendorfer, the assistant superintendent, is to bring all the classes in a subject area together for lectures, then have students break into small groups for guided and independent practice the rest of the week. Such changes may not be easy, she said. “But maybe we need to stop doing what’s easy, and start doing what’s best for kids,” she added.
Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2012 edition of Education Week as Ruin Gives Way to Renewal in Joplin