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MICHELE NORRIS, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block.

Gearing up for the fall is a big job for most school districts. But in Joplin, Missouri, where a monstrous tornado killed 160 people and destroyed more than half the district's classroom space, the task is massive. Thanks to a resourceful approach, plenty of help and hard work, school will start as scheduled.

And as Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports, that means a lot to the community.

FRANK MORRIS: The tornado ripped across Joplin on graduation day, Sunday, May 22nd. The devastation was vast and surreal: phone and power lines in tatters, desperate triages, swamped medical centers, scores missing. More than 3,000 school kids were suddenly homeless. The school district mobilized to account for every one of them.

ASHLEY MICKLETHWAITE: That was our first priority. Our next priority was, we need to get school up and running come fall. Where do we go? And it was just looking at all available space within the community.

MORRIS: And School Board President Ashley Micklethwaite does mean all available space.

MICKLETHWAITE: We are standing at Northpark Mall outside of the old Shopko building, which will be the new Joplin High School 11th and 12th grade center.

MORRIS: This big, white hulk of a building sat empty in a vast parking lot for about a decade. Now, it's almost ready for classes. Inside there's lots of bright, artificial light and moveable walls, but no lockers. The students won't have textbooks. Rather than replacing books lost in the storm, the district has decided to issue each student a laptop.

Micklethwaite admits there's no recipe for this abrupt transformation.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MICKLETHWAITE: No, there's no template. We're making it up as we go. Oh, check it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MICKLETHWAITE: It's our eagle, that's awesome.

MORRIS: She spots a huge mural of the school's mascot - more rapid progress.

MICKLETHWAITE: These guys are just working their hearts out.

MORRIS: And it's not just at the mall.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMERING)

MORRIS: Out here, in an industrial park east of Joplin, construction crews are working overtime to transform a once-vacant shell into a middle school. Elsewhere, volunteers have flooded the town.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MORRIS: They're moving furniture and making donations; little kids have sent their allowance. Sheryl Crow, the singer, is giving the schools money from selling a vintage Mercedes. All this is deeply appreciated.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLES)

EMMA COX: My name is Emma Cox and I'm going to be a senior, and I'm going to go to school at Shopko High School.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MORRIS: Cox is sitting near the wreck of the old high school, where still more volunteers are salvaging lumber. The twister splintered her house and scattered her possessions. All summer, she's worked to help her parents recover and move. Like many in Joplin, she lives the tornado every day.

COX: I think, in some ways, school is going to take a lot of people's minds off of it. Whenever I am engaged in something, I don't really think about what's all around the town. So, I mean, I think it's going to help put a lot of people back in their normal positions and...

MORRIS: The tornado left well over a third of the district's kids homeless; still, almost all of them will go back to school in Joplin this month.

MICKLETHWAITE: We're having a big party. It's just going to be so healing for our community to have our kids back in school.

MORRIS: Ashley Mickelthwaite, the school board president, has a day job, too. It's at the hospital in Joplin that the tornado wrecked.

MICKLETHWAITE: I'm excited. I moved this week into my new office cubical, which is in a bank. Before that I was at a card table in my dad's living room, where we're living.

MORRIS: She and her family are living there because the tornado took their home.

MICKLETHWAITE: I cry most days. I laugh every day and I try to find beauty every day. You know, my home was damaged. My yard is just toast. But I have gladiolus coming up that I planted this spring, and they're beautiful. And I'm very thankful for that.

MORRIS: No one in Joplin thinks that getting school started on time is going to end the struggles of this battered community, but it certainly helps.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris.

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