JOPLIN, Mo. — Debbie Fort just wanted to take a look around, peek inside classrooms and again feel what it's like to be where children are learning.
So one morning in late May, three days after a tornado wiped away one-third of Joplin, including the elementary school where she was principal, Fort stopped at a school in neighboring Webb City.
"Can I just walk your hallways?" she asked. She wasn't looking for reminders of what the EF-5 tornado stole on May 22, but of what she and others in Joplin would be pushing to restore.
She walked past decorated bulletin boards and posters. Eyed stacks of books. Watched teachers as they called on eager kids with hands stretched high.
"I needed that," she says now. "I needed to see the kids and the books and the learning. I needed to know that one day we will be there again."
That one day is almost here. Despite the debris that still litters Joplin and the hovering uncertainty of just how many families will rebuild, Fort and others are counting the days to school.
Students are expected to return to the classroom on Aug. 17, right on schedule, even though six of the district's 19 school buildings were destroyed, including the high school. Three other schools were heavily damaged.
Most of the students will go to a different school than they did last year, many of them in refurbished or retrofitted facilities. A few classes, and science labs, will be in trailers.
And because so many families lost their homes, some students now live outside the Joplin district on rental property or in Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers and will be bused in from towns as far as a county over.
Yet even with the distractions, they'll try to pick up where they left off May 20, the Friday before high school graduation and two weeks before summer vacation. Two days later, the tornado tore through Joplin, killing 160 people and injuring more than 900.
Among the dead: one school secretary and seven students, including one young man who was sucked from his vehicle on his way home from his graduation ceremony.
Countdown to August
Superintendent C.J. Huff was finishing his third year in Joplin when the tornado hit.
In a matter of minutes, half his district had been destroyed, families were homeless and needing help, and teachers, too, were dealing with personal and professional tragedy.
Those thoughts raced through his mind the night after the tornado as he lay awake on an office cot. Already the pressure to rebuild was mounting. To provide some sort of hope to people who had been stripped of it.
"I wanted what everyone wanted," he says today. "Getting the kids back in school is the best thing we can do for our kids, our families, and give our community the best chance for rebuilding."
By the next morning, after he created his first post-storm organizational chart in the middle of the night, the countdown to school began.
Just 86 days.
"Somebody told me it couldn't be done," says Huff, who turned 41 the day before the tornado. "Which is all it takes to get me going."
Getting to work
Some admit that in those early days they were skeptical classes could start on time. Sure, they knew what the district could accomplish when teachers and administrators pulled together. In the past few years, the district had raised test scores and improved the graduation rate.
But to find and create learning space for 4,200 kids — 54 percent of the district — in 12 weeks?
"I thought, 'I don't know how we're going to do this,'" said Kerry Sechetta, the high school principal. "I didn't think it could be done."
The first question: Where do we put the kids?
Administrators looked at district buildings. Fort's Irving Elementary students could go to Washington Elementary, a building that had sat vacant before the storm. Layouts were similar. The school was big enough for Irving's 300 students. Good fit.
Sechetta knew he couldn't keep all the high schoolers together. No place in town could hold 2,200 students. They'd have to be split up.
Freshmen and sophomores could go to the Memorial Education Center, which in previous years had been a high school and middle school and junior college.
But what about the upperclassmen?
One thought was the Northpark Mall and the old Shopko facility, a long-vacant box store across the parking lot from Macy's and Sears.
High school at the mall?
"I was like, 'Oh great, he's going to be out shopping or at the food court when he's supposed to be in class,' " said parent Laura Land, whose older child will be a junior this year.
But she and other doubters had no clue what administrators were cooking up with architects and contractors. Land now is becoming a believer.
The store has become a 21st-century high school. Inside, there are movable walls to better use space and wide corridors where students can plop down on the carpet, plug in their laptops — which every high school student will receive — and go to work.
Instead of a gym, the school for 11th and 12th graders will have a fitness center. It'll also have a coffee shop, open before school and run by a class of business students.
"When we first found out we were going to the mall for school, I just thought my senior year was going to be the biggest joke," said Emma Cox, 17. Then she took a tour of the new facility earlier this month.
"It looks like they put so much thought into it," she said. "If I didn't know I was at the mall, I would think I was in a regular school."
Focus is on students
From the beginning, the focus has been on the students. When administrators realized what families faced, with trying to rebuild homes and lives, they expanded summer school.
Instead of three weeks, summer school went from June 13 to July 29.
"We knew kids would be safe there, have something to do," Huff said, "while moms and dads figured out where they would soon live."
Summer school registration jumped 25 percent.
Counselors were on hand to talk with students.
Amy Jump's two elementary school students would come home and tell her what they had discussed that day.
"Some days when I asked them about it, they didn't want to talk about it," Jump says. "And that's OK."
Parents and teachers know to take cues from the children.
Land says she and her two teenage kids talk about what they went through the night they lost their home and nearly everything they owned. The teens, along with Land's niece, piled into the bathroom. Land lay on top to protect them.
"We try to keep it as open as possible," she says. "If someone wants to talk about it, we talk about. Sometimes we cry about it."
The scars are there, from the oldest students to the youngest. Educators still don't know how deep.
In summer school, a first-grader came in late and his class wasn't in the room. He was scared and didn't know what to do, said Fort. Teachers found him hiding under a table.
"That's because that's what he did in the tornado," Fort said.
The district hired five more counselors for the next school year, and many faculty members already have trained in how to deal with crises.
Fourth-grade teacher Shelly Tarter, who taught 17 years at Irving Elementary, knows there'll be times in class when she may have to stop the lesson and just talk with the kids about their fears.
"It's very important to let them know someone is interested in what they have to say and how they feel," Tarter said. "How they feel now and how they felt then.
"That's the best thing we can do for them, is listen to them."
'Just keep us together'
Every day on her way home from summer school, Fort stops by Washington Elementary, Irving's new home. She can't stay away.
Walking the halls makes her feel more at home, familiar with where she and her teachers are scheduled to welcome students in just 17 days.
In the first days after the storm, Fort had one request for Huff.
"I don't care where you put us, just keep us together," Fort remembers saying. "It was critically important that we stay together. We truly are a family."
The district still doesn't know how many students will return.
For weeks, teachers and volunteers have been trying to contact every family to see which students are returning. So far, about three-fourths of the 7,700 students have been contacted and nearly 92 percent of those say they plan to come back.
"Life goes on and we're going to come out stronger," Fort said. It's what she tells her teachers. What they'll tell the students. And what Fort constantly tells herself.