JOPLIN, Mo. —
More than 7,000 children headed back to Joplin public schools Thursday morning, with some lamenting the loss of summer and others looking forward to what the new year would bring.
Second-grader Marley Allen was one who couldn’t contain her excitement for the start of a new school year. Gathered with other students and their families just outside Soaring Heights Elementary School (formerly Duenweg Elementary), she waited impatiently for the doors to open at 7:15 a.m.
“I want to go to my classroom now,” she pleaded with her mother, adding that she couldn’t wait to see her friends and her new teacher. “Why can’t we go inside?”
When the gymnasium doors opened a few moments later, Marley and her younger sister, kindergartner Roxie, disappeared inside almost without a second glance at their parents.
“We were excited to come back,” said the girls’ mother, Sabrina Allen. “Marley was excited to hang out with her friends, and I was excited about Roxie’s first day of school.”
The girls are among a group of young students who are facing a new educational era in Joplin. They will attend the new Soaring Heights school beginning in January and its neighbor, the newly rebuilt East Middle School, once they reach the sixth grade. By the time they become freshmen, they will attend the new Joplin High School and Franklin Technology Center, which will focus on career pathways, technology initiatives and 21st century skills.
“I think it’s really neat,” Allen said of the future before her daughters. “I think it will be a good opportunity for them.”
Kindergartner Emily McGuirk also was prepared for her first day at Soaring Heights, a new pink backpack strapped securely around her shoulders.
“I’m excited because we can play,” she said.
Less prepared for the big day was Emily’s mother, Kobie McGuirk, who acknowledged she was “a little nervous” on her daughter’s behalf.
“Summer was short,” she said. “But I’m excited for her to learn lots of things and for the whole experience. I loved school, so I think it will be wonderful.”
McGuirk said her family moved to Duenweg after the 2011 tornado to be close to the elementary school, only to find out that it will close when Soaring Heights opens on East 20th Street for pupils of the former Duenweg and Duquesne schools.
“We’re going to have to get used to a brand-new school, but I think it’ll be OK,” she said.
To help ease the transition back into the classroom, members of the school’s Bright Futures partners were at each door, handing fruit snacks and unsharpened pencils to each student.
“This is my favorite day,” said Shirley Fullerton, of Central Christian Center. “Just to put a smile on their face — it’s worth it. A lot of them come in, head hanging, not sure what to expect, and we hand them a pencil and a treat, and they just light up.”
Meanwhile, at the high school, students were entering what is expected to be their final year as a split campus. The school has been divided since the tornado, with freshmen and sophomores attending the former Memorial Middle School near downtown Joplin, and juniors and seniors taking classes at a renovated department store at Northpark Mall.
Senior Chrissy Miranda — who will be part of the final graduating class of the mall campus next spring — said she most looks forward to feeling settled at the junior-senior campus. Because of all the transitions brought about by the tornado, this is the first year since at least middle school, she said, in which she has attended the same school for a second consecutive year.
“It’s finally like this is my high school,” she said.
It was much the same story for junior Tess Harmon, who is attending classes at the mall campus for the first time this year and will be part of the first graduating class of the new high school in 2015.
“This is something I’ve been looking forward to,” she said of being a student at the mall campus. “It’s a good snapshot of what we’re going to get next year.”
Superintendent C.J. Huff said Thursday was a “pretty typical” first day of school. Although official enrollment figures are not yet available, attendance was 7,249 students, which is comparable with the district’s enrollment at the end of last year, he said.
There was some traffic congestion around South Middle School because of the closure of one end of 50th Street, he said, as well as some problems with bus routes and bus stops that are usual during the first few days of school.
“That’ll take several days to get those kinks worked out,” he said. “Overall, it was a very good day.”