Note: This is an edited version of the web-only essay that was published to promote the Joplin Schools story I wrote for American School Board Journal.
You never know who you’re going to bump into at a conference. But after a couple of days, I usually have a pretty good idea.
Each year, I meet a board member or superintendent early on, either on the shuttle bus or in line at the hotel. And over the course of the next several days, I seem to see that person everywhere.
Last year, that person was Randy Steele.
Randy is a school board member in Joplin, Mo., and justifiably, he was proud of the Magna Award grand prize that his district was receiving for a program called “Bright Futures.” Over the course of the three-day meeting, I saw him everywhere—in the hallway, in sessions, at the Magna luncheon. By the end of the week, it had become something of a running joke.
What happened in Joplin just six weeks later was no joke.
An EF-5 tornado cut a three-quarter mile path through the middle of this Missouri community, ultimately claiming 161 lives, causing $3 billion in damage, and destroying several of Joplin’s school buildings. Immediately, the American School Board Journal staff reached out via Facebook to Steele and Superintendent C.J. Huff, asking if there was anything we could do.
This feature story is the result.
Over the course of a year, I followed a remarkable tale of resilience and recovery, of looking ahead when it is more tempting to look back. It’s a fascinating study of how tireless leaders — board members and administrators — turn crisis into opportunity as they work to protect students and staff and prevent them from having a lost year.
The first section of this essay was taken from my editor’s note that appeared in the May 2012 issue of the magazine. We wrapped up the print edition in late March and by the time it appeared, there were a number of things to update:
• Just after the issue went to press, voters narrowly passed a $62 million bond issue that will help in the district’s rebuilding effort. Joplin High School is the centerpiece of that effort; all of the pictures in the print edition are from the devastated building that is still being razed. (You also can find more pictures from the high school and the Joplin community that I took last year here.)
• A week after the construction referendum, former board chair Ashley Micklethwaite announced that she has accepted a job with Mercy Health Center in St. Louis and will leave Joplin later this year.
• The district has started working on plans for President Obama’s commencement speech on May 21 — the day before the first anniversary. The next day, ceremonial groundbreaking ceremonies will be held for the new schools.
C.J. Huff, who has done yeoman’s work in leading the district’s recovery efforts, told the Joplin Globe that he and other administrators know that May 22 will be a tough and emotional day for the community’s residents.
“Everybody is in a different place,” Huff said. “Those days will bring a lot of celebration and a lot of reflection. As we reflect on the past, we have to think about the future. It’s just another step in the healing process.”
The year has not been without its glitches. In fact, Joplin is facing a lawsuit from the out-of-state contractor hired to demolish the high school. People who remain unsettled by the storm were upset that their taxes would go up and voted against the referendum, which passed by a 57-43 margin.
But none of that should put a damper on the remarkable story of Joplin’s school leaders.
Just before the issue went to press, I asked Randy if I would see him at this year’s conference. The new board president said he wasn’t sure, and ultimately he did not go. The reason: The meeting conflicted with Joplin’s prom.
In Boston for the meeting, I got onto a packed shuttle and headed toward the back. This time, I bumped into Mickelthwaite. She had been remarkably candid in our talks last November and again in March, talking about the loss of her home, the struggles of her community, the changes in her job — Joplin’s Mercy Hospital was destroyed in the storm — and the hard work going on in the district.
As we rode toward the convention center, she told me about her decision to resign from the board and leave her hometown (“It’s tough, but it’s time,” she said). She also talked of the resilience — and the grind — that everyone continues to face.
“It’s been an amazing year,” she said.
Indeed it has.
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