By Kelsey Ryan
JOPLIN, Mo. —
The Joplin School District opened its new term Wednesday — 87 days after being stunned by an EF-5 tornado — with no major hitches, officials said.
Some principals declared this year’s first day of school, even in an array of temporary locations, one of the smoothest ever.
At the 11th- and 12th-grade center at Northpark Mall, about 1,000 juniors and seniors received laptop computers courtesy of the district.
Quentin Anderson, a senior who was critically injured in the tornado and who lost both of his parents in the disaster, was the first student to receive one of the MacBook laptops presented by Gov. Jay Nixon. He said he has high hopes for his senior year and eventually plans pursue a doctorate in molecular microbiology.
“I hope to keep straight A’s, and, of course, everyone wants to graduate,” he said. “No one wants to be in high school for the rest of their life.”
Anderson said he didn’t have any doubts about Joplin schools starting on time.
“I knew they would have to move mountains for it, but I didn’t think it would be impossible,” he said. “It’s a lot better than the old place. I didn’t know what it would be like.”
Joplin High School Principal Kerry Sachetta, who will travel between the two high school campuses this year, said students will receive cyber-safety training at school, and that filters have been installed on the laptops to keep students off unwanted sites.
Many students were excited to see their friends and explore the new classrooms, and several experienced the typical back-to-school butterflies.
“I’m scared I’ll get lost or that I can’t find my classes,” said senior Taylor Haddad. “I feel like a freshman again, basically.
“The cafeteria is pretty awesome. This whole building is so innovative. The hallways and common areas are really great”
Because the 11th- and 12th-grade campus does not have a gymnasium, a fitness center has been created where students can exercise. Sachetta said athletes will train during first hour at the Memorial Education Center campus, where the freshmen and sophomores are attending classes.
Additional changes include food offerings, which Sachetta said will include more options via some mall vendors. As the year progresses, some students who meet certain criteria, such as a high grade-point average or high attendance, may receive the option of leaving campus for lunch, Sachetta said.
Chad Greer, an architect, said the designers wanted to create a unique floor plan for the temporary school at the mall. He works for CGA architects, which paired up with DLR Group for the project that converted a former big-box store space.
“What we wanted to do is give them a true test, an incubator for their future facility,” Greer said. “We have given them a variety of different spaces that they can use, areas for collaboration and classrooms that expand and open up.”
Superintendent C.J. Huff visited all Joplin elementary schools and posed for photos with each of the district’s 606 kindergartners, who will be the class of 2024.
“My favorite parts are today, going around seeing the kindergartners, and my other favorite thing to do is graduation,” Huff said. “Those are my two favorite days of the year.”
Huff said there were no major hiccups at schools on Wednesday.
At Irving Elementary School, which is now located at the old Washington School campus, Principal Debbie Fort helped patrol the lunchroom on the first day. She said she wants the students to know they are in a safe environment.
“By 8:05 a.m., everybody was in class; there was learning occurring,” Fort said. “It was very smooth. It was as though they never left.”
Fort said the teachers will focus on procedures and team building in the first two weeks of school. Upper-grade students have classes in modular units. Fort said the Washington building, which was built in 1927, has a layout nearly identical to that of the Irving Elementary building, with the exception of an addition at Irving in 1954. Irving was destroyed on May 22.
At East Middle School, Taylor Robinson, a seventh-grader who lost her home in the tornado and now commutes to school every day, said the first day went better than she had expected. The school is housed in a converted warehouse at the Crossroads Center Business and Distribution Park.
“I was kind of scared to go to school because I didn’t know what they meant by warehouse,” she said. “I thought we’d just come to a school with a bunch of concrete walls and just chairs and desks. I didn’t think it would be like this, but it’s so wonderful.”
Taylor said she has high expectations for the rest of the year.
“I’m hoping it will bring a lot of happiness because there are still a lot of us who are still sad and trying to get through it, so I hope it will help us feel better,” she said. “I’m proud to have a school to go to.”
Jason Weaver, vice principal at East, said he wants the students to learn resilience. He said he is proud of the staff and its preparations for the school year.
“In as many ways as we can, we’re trying to let life continue as normal, let kids come back and be with friends again, figure their schedules out and deal with the normal trauma of middle school,” Weaver said.
Linda Weaver, a seventh-grade reading teacher at East, said the first day went well. Her classroom was adopted by the architectural firm that designed the school. With that help, she was able to get wooden bookshelves and decorate her room.
“I want the kids to feel welcome in reading class, welcome in our school, to feel secure and safe in their surroundings, and to understand that all of the teachers are here to help them,” she said. “The kids are great. They’re calm, relaxed, listening. They’re attentive and ready to learn.”
SOME JOPLIN SCHOOLS released preliminary attendance numbers. Almost every school showed a decrease in enrollment compared with the figures on the first day of school last year. Columbia, Irving and Royal Heights elementary schools showed slight increases. The district’s estimate on the first day of classes was 6,978 students, which is down 513 from the total at the beginning of school last year. More solid attendance numbers will be released next week, officials said.