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Joplin’s new schools arise as palaces of color and warmth

  • The Kansas City Star
  • Published Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, at 10:42 p.m.
  • Updated Friday, Jan. 10, 2014, at 12:18 p.m.

Photos

— Fourteen-year-old Shyla Allender woke Thursday to the first morning of her new school, stumbling across the same persistent reminders of how so many lives here are changed.

Like the flooring that dips under her feet because her family’s home still sits cockeyed on its foundation.

Not that she expects to ever forget the May 22, 2011, tornado that tore away the back side of their home, destroyed her parents’ workplaces — and collected her sister’s best friend among the 161 who died.

But this was the day she could at least put “the Warehouse” behind her.

In the 962 days since many of Joplin’s schools were destroyed, the school district had done its best to make temporary sites work. But the building where she and her eighth-grade classmates had spent all of their middle school years was still a warehouse — across the street from a dog food factory.

She knows it’s a lot of work, building a school.

“I worried I would not be able to come here.”

What they saw in the dark morning’s first gray light were glowing palaces of color and warmth — representing Joplin’s chance to express its best ideation of what the next generation of schools can be.

Here was a community at full stride in its grand recovery.

“This,” Superintendent C.J. Huff said inside the entry of Soaring Heights Elementary School, “is what ‘bigger and better Joplin’ looks like.”

In all, 1,400 children entered new schools Thursday — Irving Elementary in central Joplin, and the linked campus of Soaring Heights Elementary and East Middle School on the city’s east side.

All are schools of innovation, created from the ground up by teams of educators, parents and students working with architects who were spurred to the full breadth of their creativity.

Kansas City’s Hollis + Miller Architects designed Soaring Heights and East. Springfield’s Sapp Design Associates Architects designed Irving. The $64.8 million to build the schools came from insurance proceeds, federal funds, donations, grants and a bond issue.

“I am so excited!” second-grade teacher Kathryn Johnson exalted as she led her children with their winter coats and backpacks into their new classroom at Soaring Heights.

They’d come from a modular building where they had to hang their coats over the backs of their chairs, Johnson said.

Here they each had slick wooden cubbies in a carpeted room with elegant picture windows and wide open spaces with views into the school’s “Learning Park” with its skylights, reading lounges and indoor theater.

Parents who had brought their children into the cafeteria to say goodbye measured complex feelings with sighs of relief.

“It’s so hard to let my children out of my sight,” Sarah Myers said after 7-year-old Kyra and 10-year-old Xander hugged and waved to her.

The school stands out on an eastern Joplin landscape with gaping pockets that Myers said are still “so barren.” But right there from the cafeteria she could see the heavy doors that lead to the safe rooms — the storm shelters.

“That makes me comfortable,” she said.

On the other side of the campus, East’s boisterous middle schoolers were called to order in the school’s gymnasium.

“Duty! Honor!” Assistant Principal Jason Weaver shouted. And the students shouted back the rest of the school’s code — “Peace and pride!”

“Ladies and gentlemen of East Middle School,” Weaver sang out, “welcome to your new building!”

After a roaring chorus of cheers, and then a rundown of first-day logistics, the students herded behind their teachers to their classes — except for the eighth-graders.

Principal Bud Sexson gathered them first on the school’s “Learning Stair” — a wide staircase that doubles as a gathering spot, big enough to seat all of the 250 children per grade level, and ideal for a class photo.

There is a reason the builders rushed to turn out a 24-month job in 16 months.

“It was more important to get you in here,” Sexson told the eighth-graders. “This is an incredible opportunity for you. You get to spend at least one semester in this place. I’m so glad you’re here.”


The first building blocks were words: Nurturing … curiosity … holistic … collaborative … global …

From those words, Joplin’s creative teams developed visions of what learning should look like, feeding those ideas into the architects’ emerging designs.

“We were working at a primal level,” said Scott Barton, the director of design at Hollis + Miller. “Tailoring it to the way the brain learns.”

A team from Joplin had even gone as far as Apple’s world headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., to help imagine common learning spaces that go by descriptions like “camp fire,” “watering hole” and “mountain top.”

Even before May 2011, Joplin had been working on plans to modernize and had already enlisted Hollis + Miller to help. John Brown, the partner in charge of the Joplin project, actually was supposed to meet with Huff again on what would become the Monday after the tornado.

Brown and Hollis + Miller’s Kirk Horner went down on that Tuesday instead, just wanting to help, Brown said, and they saw the people stunned and terrified, and Huff standing calm.

To see the school community, within months, rallying to build “something better than what they had before,” Barton said, “was inspiring.”

The schools feature beautiful shared spaces that give teachers and classes places to collaborate. Children can nest into living room chairs to read. Glass doors open into outdoor courtyards and canopies for when the weather warms.

At Irving, the school is splashed with bright colors and openness that thrilled children and teachers, third-grade teacher Sarah Nangle said.

She’d been teaching her kids in a trailer building the past year, crossing a gravel lot to get to the larger temporary structure that served as their gym.

Over the 962 days, Nangle said, the children and teachers have held celebrations as each new home was finished, as their churches opened anew.

“Eyes are on us,” she said. The children aren’t going to be remembered just for the tornado anymore, she said. “We’re giving these kids a great school.”


Picking her favorite spot was easy for Shyla. It’s the high-ceilinged commons area at East, full of light that bathes a mural of giant photographs blended into the wall.

The photos capture some history, and a lot of the future. She was startled to see her face up there, larger than life in a photo of laughing girls in a classroom game.

At the moment, she and school bandmate 13-year-old Zach Kennedy retraced the path here.

“The houses are coming back,” Zach said with a nod to the winter scene outside the window. “Now the schools are coming back.”

They will get to be part of the first freshman class this August at the new Joplin High School.

The face smiling so big in the mural will go with Shyla — joyously alive.

“We overcame what happened to us,” she said. “We were able to make it better.”

To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send email to jrobertson@kcstar.com.

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