Leadership Missouri: Education in still-recovering Joplin

By Dr. Angie Besendorfer

Dr. Besendorfer is the chancellor of WGU Missouri and a member of the Leadership Missouri class of 2014.

The Leadership Missouri Class of 2014 traveled to the southwest corner of the state to learn about education and get a glimpse into the recovery of Joplin. The time went fast with so much to see and learn. As I pen this, I feel I must include an up front disclaimer that as the previous assistant superintendent for Joplin Schools and a current member of the Leadership Missouri class of 2014, I may have a

bessbias in how I feel about the recovery results.

As most of you will remember, on May 22, 2011 the Joplin community was devastated by an EF-5 tornado that left one-third of the town in rubble. Three years later, Joplin is a community that has faced unimaginable challenges and is an example for others in many ways.

As part of its education focus for the week, the group examined the impact of goal setting by the Joplin Schools and its determination to put students first. Leadership Missouri class members toured five schools that have been rebuilt since the tornado. We toured Irving Elementary, Soaring Heights Elementary, East Middle School, Joplin High School and Franklin Technology Center.

15133659549_0836f548d4_kAll five new schools incorporated certain features, such as dramatic use of color to create inspiring spaces for learning —a stark contrast from the old beige and white walls of schools of the past. Another innovative feature was the absence of traditional hallways, which had been transformed into wider, more usable learning spaces where students could gather or work in groups. The furniture was different, too. A variety of types of furniture were employed to serve different learning purposes, including soft seating, tables of varying heights and shapes, individual desks, and stools that provided students opportunity for movement.

Technology was a game changer in Joplin Schools. Projectors are in every classroom and even in hallway spaces where students can gather on the “learning stairs.” Additionally, at the middle school all 8th graders were provided iPads while every high school student was given a MacBook. The high school instituted a textbook-free setting (not even digital versions) in order to provide higher level thinking through project-based learning strategies.

The spaces were designed to place learning as the most important characteristic. An example is the concept of “learning on display” throughout all the buildings with many windows. Daylight in the classrooms and hallways was one use of windows, but equally important were windows into the classrooms from the hallways so that everyone can see the learning happening in the classrooms. This was even more important in the technical school where students can peer into career classrooms to see what they might be doing in various jobs.

The high school structure empowered students to take charge of their learning and make it beneficial to their future. AP and dual credit courses have been expanded, creating the opportunity for students to graduate from high school with an associate degree. Students have choices for blended learning (part online and part face-to-face) classes and even internships in the future. A career path focus has resulted in classes that focus on successful transition from high school to the next steps for students’ career. The Joplin team referred to the model as a “next generation high school.” You can learn more by visiting http://joplinschools.org/Page/1544.

15317249851_fd949a472e_kThe Leadership group also learned about the challenges of educating students living in poverty, by examining the work of Ruby Payne. Additional concepts were shared that would help any parent, including referencing learning from the book Mindset by Carol Dweck. Different types of poverty were discussed, as well as statistics on the impact of students in poverty, access to preschool and the growing number of impoverished people in our state. Participants were given information about the Bright Futures model, described at http://www.brightfuturesusa.org, which is designed to responds to student needs.

While in Joplin, we were provided a partial tour of the tornado path where we observed areas of wonderful rebuilding and other areas where empty lots told the story of devastation. About 90% of Joplin businesses are back. The schools reported on strategies they employed right after the storm which have helped retain student enrollment, including hosting an extended summer school with added transportation right after the storm and creating temporary educational settings for 3200 students. The high school and technical school had just opened a couple of weeks before our tour, and it was evident that everyone, students included, was glad that they were “home” again.

During the tour, there was an opportunity to stop and take a class picture at one of the new murals in Joplin. This one included half a corvette and celebrated the historic Route 66. A fact that was shocking to many of us was how many European travelers come to the US to tour Route 66. We also drove by the “butterfly mural” that was created in response to a story of blessing and protection recounted in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

We also visited the area referred to as “ground zero” for the tornado where all the media trucks lined up so many days after the storm. This had been the location of Mercy Hospital, before it was demolished in the storm. The site is now cleaned up and grass is growing on a hill that is the future site of a memorial chapel, placed at the exact same spot as the chapel from the original hospital. On the tour, participants learned about the three versions of hospitals Mercy has had after the storm, and got a glimpse into the new hospital site that will open in March 2015.

The Joplin tornado touched many people very personally including three class members who had duties through their jobs to help in the immediate aftermath. This includes myself, Malik Henderson with the Missouri Highway Patrol, and Wynn Morgan with Missouri American Water. We saw surveillance footage of the tornado hitting the schools, and tips for safety in a tornado situation were shared

This Leadership Missouri experience celebrated the recovery of Joplin and the amazing strides that have been made by this community. During this trip there were many moments of sobering facts including the 161 lives lost including 7 students and 1 staff member from Joplin Schools. But in addition, we heard many times how the people of Joplin appreciate all the help from everyone around the world and how they couldn’t be where they are today without it.

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The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry understands that the quality of life in our state depends on quality jobs for Missourians. To that end, we have one simple mission: to protect and advance Missouri business.

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