Inside these wide hallways, lined with various lounge chairs and work stations, is an atmosphere not unlike that of many colleges. Perhaps you wouldn’t think of it as a temporary high school. But the concept, brought to life within three months after the deadly 2011 tornado in Joplin, has helped inspire the setting for what high school students will permanently call home this fall.
When the tornado struck, 10 school district buildings were damaged or destroyed, causing $150 million in damage. Still a vivid and horrifying memory for many, but peruse the rebuilt sites these days, along with those under construction, and you’ll find this is a district that has taken that next step forward.
“It’ll definitely hit us as a high school experience since we’re all together, because it definitely doesn’t feel like that now,” Huddleston said.
I met Emily Huddleston toward the end of her sophomore year back in May, inside what was formerly the temporary high school behind Northpark Mall. But it’s a school she never had the chance to attend. Huddleston had spent the last two years at the old Memorial Education Center, because the temporary facility only had the capacity for grades 11 and 12.
Huddleston was riding in the backseat on the passenger’s side of the family suburban when the tornado hit. She, along with her parents and two younger siblings had just watched her brother and the Joplin High School Class of 2011 graduate. Just before they arrived home, their vehicle was picked up by the tornado and tossed an estimated four blocks, crashing into a utility pole. Huddleston would take the worst of the wreck.
“My leg, it was cut to the bone. You could see the tendon and most of the muscles cut out,” Huddleston said.
Fortunate to keep her left leg, Huddleston had to relearn how to use it. She would not only walk again, but run competitively, like she had before the injury. For Huddleston, the next step in her recovery will come this fall, when she’ll get that real high school experience.
“It’s kind of like the last piece that kind of fits together, if that makes sense. Like, we rebuilt our house; everything with my leg is doing OK, and then to be back in a real school, like how it’s supposed to be.”
For the past two years, crews have been preparing the new 400,000 square foot Joplin High School and Franklin Technology Center, which will house 2,500 students. The $110 million structure, which is being built on the site of the former high school lot, is paid for by insurance, government grants, donations and a portion of the $62 million school bond approved by voters.
“I don’t know if there’s anything here that we don’t have in the new school,” said Dr. Kerry Sachetta, Joplin High School principal. “Quite honestly I thought we were gonna have plywood walls and rickety old chairs and 20-year-old textbooks and we were gonna try to have school. I mean when you’re sitting there two days after a tornado you don’t envision this. I didn’t envision this.”
But it became more than just a temporary space. It became a test site for the new high school. Features at the mall school like big doorways, wider hallways, various congregating spaces, monitors, and charging stations, are being incorporated into the new facility.
Locke McAlister just finished his junior year at the mall school.
“I’d be perfectly fine going probably four years in this school. If it was a little bit bigger, I mean if it could hold the other two grades in here. But I mean it’s a cool school, honestly. I enjoyed being here,” McAllister said.
McAllister added it’s a more mature atmosphere at the 11/12 campus, a quality Principal Sachetta hopes will trickle down to the underclassmen once all four grades are under one roof.
“Sometimes when you have a ninth and tenth grade building it can almost feel like a junior high, so to speak. There’s a lot of maturity that goes on each year - eight to ninth, ninth to tenth, tenth to eleventh – but there’s not enough you can say about senior leadership, also,” said Sachetta.
The new facility willconsist of various buildings connected through skywalks. Inside are three gymnasiums, a dozen or so "think tanks," or small glass-walled rooms, lots of natural light and green spaces, as well as safe rooms.
For Emily Huddleston, who ran in the Joplin Memorial 5k just one year after almost losing her left leg in the storm, the school marks a new chapter in the recovery.
“It’ll make things more normal again. It’ll definitely be a finishing piece to the healing process,” Huddleston said.
54 percent of students in Joplin lost their schools following the May 2011 tornado. When classes begin at the Joplin High School and Franklin Technology Center on August 25, it’ll mark the fourth new facility to come online since the storm.