Carla Eckels for NPR
The new Kiowa County school facility in Greensburg, Kan., holds the highest ranking for an environmentally friendly building.
The new Kiowa County school facility in Greensburg, Kan., holds the highest ranking for an environmentally friendly building. Carla Eckels for NPR
School starts on Thursday for nearly 300 students in Greensburg, Kan. It's remarkable there's a school there at all. Three years ago, a tornado with winds topping 200 miles an hour tore through Greensburg, destroying much of the small southwest Kansas town. But now a new countywide school is ready for students.
With its new interactive technology, including smart boards, wireless capability and natural lighting, the school is a welcome site to students and teachers alike. Superintendent Darin Headrick led the effort to get the school system in Greensburg back on track.
"There wasn't a book, a ball, a bus, a building [after the tornado struck]," he says. "There wasn't anything left, and so everything's had to be replaced."
Even three months later, no one could live in Greensburg because the infrastructure was gone — including water, power, sewer and gas. Headrick says the entire community was displaced. "Our biggest concern was that if we didn't have a school in town as quickly as possible, people wouldn't have a reason to move back," he says.
But many did move back — nearly all the high schoolers returned and about half of the grade school population. High school freshman Mariah Charlton says she's glad to be out of the trailers and likes the new school. "The outside classroom and, like, the big windows ... not having to turn on the lights ... I think that will be cool, and just how they are building the school to be a LEED Platinum Green, and I'm excited for that," Charlton says.
A school reduced to rubble by a tornado in Greensburg, Kan., on May 5, 2007. It took three years, but a new school has been built and opens Thursday for classes.
A school reduced to rubble by a tornado in Greensburg, Kan., on May 5, 2007. It took three years, but a new school has been built and opens Thursday for classes. Orlin Wagner/AP
In fact, the Kiowa County Schools facility is registered as a LEED Platinum School, the highest ranking for an environmentally friendly building. Headrick says the $50 million complex will be paid for in the next couple of months.
"And we are going to be able to pay for it in cash and have zero indebtedness to our community because of our partnerships, our leveraging money, our insurance, our federal support, and we're pretty excited about that," he says.
Headrick says the school is both sustainable and efficient to operate. "We have natural light that floods most of the spaces, [in] a lot of the classrooms, gymnasiums, offices, you don't have to turn a light switch on during the day, so that's a feature that helps us. ... We have our own wind generation. We have a wind generator — [a] 50-kilowatt tower — that supplies a portion of our electricity."
And there's a recycling center, durable cabinets made out of wheat straw, plus hall lockers built from recycled plastic, something ninth-grader Charlton can't wait to get her hands on.
"Since we went to school in trailers, we didn't have lockers, and so you had to carry a heavy backpack and that weighed up to like 30 pounds 'cause you couldn't leave any books in the other classrooms. So I'm pretty excited about having a locker again and not having to carry a heavy backpack," she says.
Charlton's mother, Sullenia, says the school is a major reason her family rebuilt in Greensburg. Two of her children went to high school here and she can't wait for the new school to open for her youngest daughter.
"It sounds like she wants to make camp in this locker ... she is excited — I just hope that she has room for her books," Sullenia Charlton says.
There's one more improvement in this facility: a FEMA-approved, reinforced tornado shelter. Just in case.