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  • Life in Real Time

    Last month, everywhere I looked during NSBA’s annual conference, officials from Missouri’s Joplin Public Schools were talking about Bright Futures. The district won the Magna Award grand prize for its program, which works to build partnerships between schools and community agencies to serve students in need.

    Today, the immediate future is not looking as bright, and the entire Joplin community is in need.

    On Sunday, a massive tornado struck this town of nearly 50,000, killing at least 116 people and injuring more than 1,100. It is the highest death toll from a single tornado since 1953.

    The event was the latest in a series of devastating spring tornados that have pounded communities across the Southeast and through the Midwest. Just four weeks ago, 315 people were killed when a series of tornadoes struck in five states — Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, and Virginia.

    According to news reports, the late afternoon twister destroyed three schools, leaving two others and the central office seriously damaged as it ripped through the middle of this city 160 miles south of Kansas City. Graduation ceremonies for Joplin’s Class of 2011 were wrapping up at Missouri Southern State University when the tornado struck around 5:30; the high school itself was destroyed.

    ••••••

    The stories from Joplin shook me.

    Thirteen years ago, when we lived in Rockingham County, N.C., a tornado ripped through the small town of Stoneville. Two people were killed, including a young teacher, and 27 were injured.

    At the time, I was the school district’s public information officer, just 18 months on the job, with a 14-month-old daughter and 3-month-old twins at home. Jill was working as a school counselor at Reidsville Middle.

    The storms throughout that spring of 1998 were fierce. We were in a weather pattern much like the one we’re seeing now in the Southeast and Midwest. Severe thunderstorm warnings, almost every afternoon, came over the weather radio that we monitored. At one point later in the year, we had a hailstorm that was so bad my car was considered totaled.

    Late on the afternoon of Friday, March 20, we got word of a tornado warning in western Rockingham County. Buses were on the streets, with children having been let out of school just an hour before.

    Starting around 3:25 p.m., the tornado touched down and left cut a 12-mile path, missing four of our schools by less than 100 yards. The town of Stoneville was devastated. The teacher, Beth Mitchell, was killed just blocks from Stoneville Elementary; her mother, a library aide at the school, was seriously injured.

    That Saturday afternoon, I was sent over to assist in coordinating the press coverage. It was trial by fire because I had no training in handling crisis management. I decided to treat reporters the same way I would have expected to be treated when I walked in their shoes. For the most part, they were respectful, although one tried to attend the teacher’s funeral despite requests from the family that it be kept private.

    The staff, many of whom lived in the town, was shell shocked. School was cancelled until that Wednesday, and Jill and other counselors were on site when students returned.

    The rest of that school year is a blur, glazed by mourning. The staff’s bond was so tight, but you could see transitions coming. It was hard on everyone involved.

    Thirteen years later, I remain proud of the work of the staff in Stoneville, and of the board’s response to the crisis. It showed me how communities can come together in the times of greatest stress, a life-affirming message in the wake of a horrible tragedy.

    ••••••

    Honoring the winners of the Magna Awards — the magazine’s biggest event at NSBA’s conference — is one of the favorite parts of my job. The program, sponsored by ASBJ and Sodexo School Services, recognizes school boards and district-level programs that go above and beyond the call to improve student achievement.

    Another highlight is talking to board members from around the country and learning more about their work. Each year, it seems, I meet someone new at the start of the conference and then continue to bump into that person at odd moments throughout the event.

    This year, that person was Joplin board member Randy Steele; by the end of the conference, we had seen each other so often that it had become a running joke.

    Bright Futures, the program Joplin won for, is no joke. The 7,747-student district received the grand prize in the 5,000-to-20,000 enrollment category for a community engagement initiative that has helped reduce its dropout rate by more than 50 percent. Bright Futures also has resulted in the development of more than 230 community partnerships, and brought in more than $300,000 in cash and in-kind donations.

    One unique aspect of the program is its use of social networking — primarily Facebook — in a “rapid response” system designed to meet the basic needs of students within a 24-hour period. The Bright Futures group has 4,800 people who “like” it; the district’s Facebook page has almost 3,000.

    “Whether it is providing comfort to homeless students, eating lunch with children of incarcerated parents, tutoring struggling students, or buying a pair of shoes for a child whose family can’t afford it, every single need is being filled as it is identified,” Superintendent C.J. Huff said in the district’s application.

    The needs are far greater today in Joplin, and in other districts and communities that have been devastated as well. Fortunately, the district has the infrastructure in place — an infrastructure that was being leveraged just hours after the tornado.

    ••••••

    Communication always is a struggle when disaster strikes. Phone lines are jammed or down.  E-mail is non-existent. In the wake of such a devastating event, the greatest struggle can be just locating people amid the rubble.

    We have not spoken to the superintendent, or to Randy Steele. Reaching people in the district via traditional methods has been impossible almost all day.

    Except through Facebook.

    Throughout the day, postings gave the district’s status on the Joplin Schools page. One, noting that the district was “in the process of accounting for the safety of our students, faculty, and staff,” had more than 275 comments in just six hours.

    “I can’t dial out, but I’m safe,” said one.

    “I pray for the safety of the rest,” said another.

    “Thanks for checking on everyone,” a third said.

    As the day progressed, postings were added to the Bright Futures page — requests for clothing, shoes, non-perishable food. A community conversation, in the middle of a town devastated, was starting anew.