DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Graduation is supposed to be about celebrating the future, but almost a year ago, in Joplin, Missouri, shortly after the graduation ceremony at the city's public high school, one of the most powerful tornados on record hit. A third of the city was destroyed; 161 people were killed, including a teen who had just received his diploma. The high school was among the buildings and businesses that were left in ruins that day.
Missy Shelton of member station KSMU looks at how the school's students have adapted and coped in the year that's passed.
MISSY SHELTON, BYLINE: I'm in the parking lot of North Park Mall in Joplin, Missouri. As I look around, I see familiar storefronts for Sears and Macy's. But one entrance looks quite different. Instead of the name of a big department store above the doors, there are the words Joplin High School. Inside this facility, which has come to be known as the mall school, students and teachers have learned exactly what it means to adapt to change and be flexible.
KATIE SIMPSON: It was overwhelming in the beginning. The walls don't touch the ceiling, so you hear everything.
SHELTON: That's Katie Simpson, a senior at the so-called mall school, which is home to juniors and seniors here. The mall school has a modern design that students love. But there are problems.
SIMPSON: It's loud, it's noisy, and you can barely concentrate. But you get used to it after a while.
SHELTON: Students aren't the only ones adjusting to a noisy environment. In a former retail space, the district renovated in a matter of weeks after the tornado, Virginia Gormely teaches her English class with soft music in the background as a choral group practices nearby, and she competes for her students' attention with a very loud teacher next door.
VIRGINIA GORMELY: We joke that we have dual-credit classes. He teaches personal finance and there are many times when my kids actually answer the questions.
SHELTON: In spite of the troubles, Joplin High School principal Kerry Sachetta says he hopes it's been a good year for students.
KERRY SACHETTA: We wanted one part of their day to be something that they could remember, especially our seniors. And we wanted them to be able to say, you know what, I was in this club, I was in this organization, I was on this team, I was in this concert. Not to be able to look back and say this tornado not only destroyed our town but it also wiped out everything I can remember about what was important to me growing up.
SHELTON: One of the buildings that did get wiped out was Irving Elementary. The students and teachers have been in another district facility this year with some classes being held nearby in trailers. Third-grade teacher Shelly Tarter says it's been a tough year, but she and the students have comforted each other.
SHELLY TARTER: You know, they're always patting me on the back or giving me hugs and just saying it's going to be OK. I think they need to see how I'm responding to things and letting my emotions show. I think that's a wonderful lesson for them.
SHELTON: The year has also provided some lessons not found in textbooks. English teacher Virginia Gormely says they've have learned how to accept what has happened and to move on.
GORMELY: And I told them acceptance is a huge part of life. I said you're going to plan to be a doctor and you may not be. It's all about acceptance and that's how you move on. And that's how every day is OK. Because you go, this didn't work out, this does.
SHELTON: Despite the sometimes emotional moments this year, the school district is looking to the future. In April, voters approved a $62 million bond issue to fund construction of four new schools and storm shelters. And later this month, this year's graduating class will reflect on the difficult year while listening to an unusually high-profile commencement speaker: President Obama.
For NPR News, I'm Missy Shelton.
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