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'We're starting school on time' became a rallying point - KOAM TV 7

'We're starting school on time' became a rallying point

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After the May 22, 2011 tornado, Joplin School Assistant Superintendent Angie Bessendorfer went to Cecil Floyd Elementary School.

"At that moment, it turned into, 'okay, you've got a job to do and it's safety - and everything else is to the side,'" Bessendorfer says.  "And then I started on down to try to figure out how much further did it go because at that point I was hearing about Franklin Tech and the high school.

With more than 3,000 students living the path of the tornado Bessendorfer knew the district would have to deal with deaths.

"It was so massive and big, and all I could think of, and pray, was 'just please don't let it be many kids that have died,'" says Bessendorfer.  "That was the heaviest on my heart, because, how will we deal with that?"

Seven students and one staff member lost their lives.

Despite the heartbreak there was hope.

"I don't know that I realized it then, but that means that there were people that were okay," says Bessendorfer.

The week after the tornado hit, district officials met with Superintendent CJ Huff.

"I remember when he came to the meeting and said 'this is the way it's going to be, we're starting school on time,' and we're all looking at him like 'have you really been around town?'" says Bessendorfer.  "But it was a rallying point.  We kind of said, 'this is what different people are going to focus on - this person is going to focus on assessing the damages and figure out which schools can be fixed, and where we need to move to'.  I think it was less about starting school on time and more about giving a kids a place to be safe."

In 55 days a portion of Joplin's Northpark Mall was turned into a high school.

The school year ended differently, but strongly.

"We started off, early after the tornado, saying that this can't be a temporary year," says Bessendorfer.  "The success of these kids, and particularly the success of our seniors, demonstrates that they committed to their success, but also the district and the community committed to their success, and that education mattered enough to set them on the right foot as they set off for their next steps in life."

Six schools were destroyed by the tornado.  Four others were damaged.  For the 2011-2012 school year more than 3,200 students were learning in temporary facilities, but in 18 months or so that will change.

Property south of the old Saint John's Hospital is cleared, ready for it to become home to a new Irving Elementary School.  The deed to the property will be passed to school officials on May 22nd, the anniversary of the day the tornado destroyed both the hospital and school.

Bids are going out for earth moving here at the high school and at East Middle School.

While it would be easier to bid all the construction work at once with one company , the superintendent says they'll bundle projects to benefit the community labor pool.  

"Trying to break down the packages into component parts so more contractors, more local contractors can bid on various projects, I think we're doing a really good job getting the word out providing good quality information to local subs so they can get to work," says Joplin Schools Superintendent, CJ Huff, PhD.

And after groundbreakings on the 22nd people will begin to see change.

"The first part of the process will be the site work that needs to be done.  They'll be some work in terms of utilities, then you'll see site work, grating needs to take place.  Once they've done that laying foundations and doing concrete work won't be long after that you'll be seeing walls going up."

Completion date is 2014 for the high school, but it's December 2013 for East Middle School.  Irving Elementary is nearly 98% designed and ready for school board review, and could open its doors as early as Fall 2013.

"So that's going to be an exciting day.  Irving was the first school on the path of that tornado we lost in its entirety, and getting that school rebuilt brand new and having a place for those kids to go will be an exciting day for us."

It's something the superintendent says will make an impact.

"What I know about school construction is any time you plant a school a community blooms up around it.  Once that construction is started it's going to send a signal to the community -it's time to rebuild and attract more contractors, developers into the community and jump start the rebuild process."

Damages to schools were tabbed at $100 million but rebuilding will cost up to $124 million.

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