Wednesday, April 30, 2014

C. J. Huff in national magazine: My vision moved Joplin forward

(The following article is reprinted courtesy of Emergency Management magazine and can be found at this link.)
The EF5 tornado that hit Joplin, Mo., on May 22, 2011, spent 32 minutes on the ground. In that brief period, the twister managed to inflict immense damage.

The storm, which featured winds exceeding 200 mph, killed 161 people and destroyed more than 25 percent of the city, including 7,000 homes and nearly 2,000 buildings. It was the deadliest single U.S. tornado since 1953.

And the twister didn’t spare Joplin schools. Twenty of the school district’s buildings were damaged or destroyed, causing more than $100 million in damage and leaving more than 4,000 students without a school to attend.

“The tornado seemed to take a direct hit on the schools,” said Joplin City Manager Mark Rohr. “But we were fortunate it happened on a Sunday afternoon and not on a school day.”

As the city battled shock and confusion in the wake of the disaster, Rohr, Joplin Schools Superintendent C.J. Huff and other city leaders concluded that moving ahead with plans to repair the city would be key to the healing process.

“I can’t even begin to describe the sights, sounds and smells of what I experienced,” said Huff. “It was an abysmal feeling. We were in a very bad place as a community. But you can’t just stay in that place. So we started talking about what the future would look like and making plans right away.”
A few days later, Huff announced his intention to the school board: Joplin schools would open again in time for the fall semester, which was just 84 days away.  

“Making that declaration was important for a number of reasons,” he said. “It created a vision and helped us to stop focusing on the despair. Instead, everyone started thinking about how we were going to pull together to get our schools back online in time for the next school year.”

The Search for Space

In all, Joplin lost more than 600,000 square feet of educational space. The process of finding temporary classrooms for 4,000 kids and repairing the damaged schools was at first overwhelming.

“Obviously you don’t have a game plan for something of this magnitude,” Huff said. “But we started by working with the local Chamber of Commerce, real estate agents and the Army Corps of Engineers to find large, open spaces that could be modified to meet our school needs.”

Among the first priorities was creating an interim high school. The devastated Joplin High, which had served 2,200 students just before the disaster, had been the city’s only high school.

“Not only was the high school important because of the number of students that attended, but also because, as high school students, these would be the last memories of their K-12 education,” Huff said. “We wanted to treat our kids right and make sure the facilities were high-quality, even though they were temporary.”

The city secured 100,000 square feet of vacant retail space at the north end of Joplin’s largest mall, once occupied by a Shopko department store. Corner Greer & Associates of Joplin was selected to retrofit the space and transform it into an educational area. Designers and contractors had just 55 business days to complete the job. They not only had to be fast, they also had to be creative in working with limitations. For example, the kitchen and science labs had to be housed in modular trailers outside the building.

Because of limited space at the mall facility, the Joplin School District chose to use the space only for juniors and seniors (approximately 1,100 students). Freshmen and sophomores were sent to Memorial Middle School, which wasn’t hit by the tornado. Other temporary facilities were constructed or retrofitted in various locations to accommodate the rest of Joplin’s students. Huff said the biggest challenge was retrofitting an 80,000-square-foot industrial warehouse that had nothing but a gravel floor — it didn’t even have windows, air conditioning or power.
“We did a lot of juggling to make all the puzzle pieces fit,” Huff said. “It was a full-court press for each of those 84 days.”

In the end, the city successfully found facilities for all its students and the new school year started on time.

New Beginnings

Once students were in their temporary facilities, city officials turned their attention to replacing what had been lost. Rebuilding Joplin schools had one distinct advantage — starting from scratch gave school officials an opportunity to improve both safety and the learning environment. Each of the new schools built or under construction has one or more FEMA-compliant EF5-rated tornado shelters.

“All of our schools will now have safe places for all the children,” Huff said. “That’s important, obviously from a safety perspective, but also from a mental health perspective. Our district has 7,747 kids, and about 40 percent of those kids lived in the direct path of the tornado. Most of them experienced an EF5 tornado up close and personal, and lost everything in the storm. They need that peace of mind, as do the parents. Post-traumatic stress is still very prevalent here.”

The shelters will also be open to the community 24/7. By the time all construction is complete this August, Joplin schools will have enough room to shelter approximately 15,000 people.

In addition to improving safety, Joplin officials took the opportunity to incorporate 21st-century learning environments into the new schools. District leaders engaged high school staff, students, administrators and parents to brainstorm new ideas. A team of administrators toured tech-savvy schools around the country, as well as innovative companies like Apple in Cupertino, Calif., to examine cutting-edge work environments.

“We didn’t take the traditional approach to school construction,” Huff said. “We are creating schools that have a very open environment and collaborative spaces.”

The new schools have moveable walls that allow educators to create flexible spaces where students can collaborate in large and small groups. In addition, small group “think tank” areas are located in all the new buildings.

Technology also plays a key role. Franklin Technology Center will be incorporated into the new Joplin High School, and thanks to a $1 million donation from the United Arab Emirates Embassy, all 2,200 Joplin high school students now have a dual-platform laptop computer. All new buildings are also wired for current and future technology opportunities.

From a curriculum perspective, Huff said they have developed a new Career Pathway framework for course delivery.

“In essence we will be creating interdisciplinary teams that are in the process of delivering rigorous, project-based instruction in the students’ areas of interest,” he said. “We have five broad career pathways kids can choose from.”

Care was also taken to ensure the new school buildings would be efficient. While they won’t be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rated due to the high cost of certification, the buildings were built with sustainability in mind, with everything from the materials used, to rain water collection for irrigation, to natural daylighting, and motion on/off switches in the classrooms. In addition, the new Joplin High School has a conduit in place to incorporate solar power once it becomes cost effective.

Moving Forward

Though the 2011 tornado left a permanent scar on Joplin, Huff and Rohr are thankful something good came out of the wreckage. In January 2014, students moved into two new elementary schools and a new middle school. The permanent high school will be complete in August. The schools will not only be stronger, safer and better equipped to handle another tornado should one occur, but they also have the distinction of being some of the most advanced learning spaces in the U.S.

“We took the design of our new schools very seriously, and we went above and beyond to research best practices from a learning standpoint as well as from a construction standpoint,” Huff said. “When all is said and done, we’ll have some pretty amazing new schools that are efficient, cost effective and innovative.”
This story was originally published by Emergency Management magazine

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