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Students in Joplin build a new normal in 'mall' school

Seniors and juniors are taking classes in a converted big-box store. Freshmen and sophomores are in a building across town. The new middle school is in an industrial park.

Across Joplin, the schools are still a jumble, with books, computer monitors and unassembled furniture littering unfamiliar hallways. But as classes resumed Wednesday, students and teachers welcomed the start of another year as a return to something normal -- or what passes for normal in a city crippled last spring by the nation's single deadliest tornado in six decades.

"You can't pretend like nothing happened," said high school English teacher Brenda White. "But everything is so new here. Every single thing that is this school is new and different."

The twister killed 160 people, injured hundreds more and destroyed thousands of buildings, including Joplin's only public high school. Now after months of cleaning up debris, attending funerals and trying to rebuild shattered lives, it was time to get back to pop quizzes and homework assignments.

"It's going to take awhile to build everything back, but books are a good start," White said while stocking her classrooms with copies of "The Great Gatsby," "The Kite Runner" and other literary standards, past and present.

The school system was hit especially hard by the May 22 tornado. Seven students and one employee were among the victims, including a senior pulled from his car by winds on his way home from the Joplin High School graduation ceremony. Six school buildings were destroyed, including the high school. Seven other buildings were badly damaged.

District leaders quickly realized that they would play a huge role in Joplin's recovery, for reasons symbolic as much as practical. They expanded the hours and locations of summer school in an effort to give children a reassuring routine -- and their parents the time to deal with insurance agents, contractors and social service agencies.

Even in a corner of the country where hard work is cherished, the swiftness of the transformation was striking, White said.

"I've always known people are strong here. But this has really brought it home," she said. "People are so strong. They just get up, dust off and go to work."

Students arrived at the "mall school" Wednesday morning to a bevy of well-wishers holding Joplin High signs and lining the entrance road.

They raved about the school's collegelike feel. Drinks will soon be available from Joplin Joe's coffee bar, and every student could get a free laptop thanks to a donation from the United Arab Emirates worth as much as $1 million.

Phillip Gloyer, a communication arts teacher who is also a National Guard chaplain, said he planned to tap his divinity school training as well as his expertise in British literature.

"I'm just really focused on the kids' emotional health," he said. "A lot of hugs, a lot of encouragement. Asking them to tell their story. That's the best therapy."