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  • A Tree Where Houses Used to Be

    Background: This photo, which I first posted seven years ago today, is from a trip I took to Joplin to report on the schools' efforts to reopen following a devastating tornado. At the time, my then-supervisor did not see "the point" in my going to Missouri to write the piece, because she thought it was not a good use of time and resources.

    Obviously (and respectfully), I disagreed. At the time, I had not written a feature in two-plus years, and felt an urgent need to keep my skills sharp. I also thought the story presented an important lesson that bears repeating no matter how many times you hear it: The best leaders are those who are the most resilient in tough times.

    Resiliency has since become a recurring theme in much of my work, and I point back to this trip as the true start of that.

    To see the piece, go to http://glenncook.virb.com/joplin.

  • 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.

  • Joplin's 'Amazing' Year

    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.

    To read the story, go to this site's Magazine Features section or click on "Restoring the Future." To read my earlier essay, written right after the Joplin tornado, click here