Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

October 24, 2013

Aftermath of Devastation Fosters New Formula for Success

Connections Joplin HS - HOPE

How Joplin Schools turned our worst nightmare into a dream scenario

By Dr. Angie Besendorfer (MO ’96)

The morning after the EF-5 tornado destroyed six schools and heavily damaged four others, I realized things would never be the same again for the people of Joplin, Missouri. The costliest tornado on record had wiped out one-third of our town with unimaginable devastation. Five days later, we realized the extent of our greatest losses: seven students and one staff member had perished. Even as we mourned their passing, we were determining what buildings could be repaired in time for school to start and where we would hold class for the 3,200 students whose schools could not be repaired. In those moments, we simply wanted everything to be normal again. But as the chaos turned to recovery, we remembered that before the May 22, 2011 tornado we had dreams of embracing 21st century education.

One of the biggest challenges we faced in getting school started on time in August of 2011 was how to provide a quality education for our high school students. We lost our high school, which served 2,200 Joplin students, and our technical school that served both Joplin both students and 300 students from area schools. We quickly secured a lease on an empty big box retail store at our local mall and the small stores near it to provide educational space for our juniors and seniors. We repurposed a 1917 school that had served several programs for our freshmen and sophomores. And we transformed a 50,000 sq. ft. warehouse into a technical school to house programs ranging from culinary arts and construction to health sciences and auto mechanics. Modular buildings provided extra needed space. Despite the condensed construction timeframe—just 57 days—we worked closely with architects to make creative design decisions. When all was said and done, the temporary space at the mall was recognized with the 2012 James D. MacConnell Award—an international architecture award for educational environments.

"We began to wonder if there could be a silver lining in the funnel cloud."
Dr. Angie Besendorfer

The ability to render innovative decisions during the construction of our temporary mall campus—like building conference rooms for students, having walls that move or slide and adding a student-run coffee shop—coupled with an inspiring and open design, created a desire for exploration that is still with us as we begin to think about our permanent schools. Just days before the tornado, we hosted a community meeting where we discussed the idea of no textbooks and having laptops for every high school student and defined what 21st Century Learning should look like for our students. The biggest barriers—aside from money—to realizing the dreams expressed in that meeting were the design and space limitations of the current high school building. The tornado removed those barriers. We would have given anything to go back in time to undo the damage and the loss; but that wasn’t an option, so we began to wonder if there could be a silver lining in the funnel cloud.

Today, two years later, we are confident that our community has proof of that silver lining. We have embraced our dreams from before the tornado and extended them far beyond anything we could have dreamt at that time. Since the tornado, we have hosted several “Dream” sessions to gather input from our parents, students, staff, community members and education experts; and have made concrete steps toward creating a new high school and technical school that will forever enhance what our students experience in high school.

Connections Joplin new school entrance

Creating a New Student Experience

1:1 Laptop Learning

Connections Joplin laptop learningAs we prepared to open school on time with only 87 days between the tornado and the first day of school, we faced many challenges. One was how to replace the educational materials for every high school course. Our teachers lost EVERYTHING they had in their classrooms. Thanks to a generous donation from the United Arab Emirates, we purchased MacBook laptops for each high school student. We did not purchase textbooks, not even digital ones. Instead, we provided professional development to teachers on project-based learning and supported them with instructional coaching from tech-savvy educators who were released from classroom duties. They assisted teachers in locating e-sources to use as instructional materials to match curriculum objectives. Now, our students are engaged in amazing projects that stretch their learning.

Non-Traditional Courses

Two things met in the new learning environment at the mall. First the space was dramatically different than our old high school. Most people who visit the temporary school comment on how it feels more like a college than a high school. Second, the student laptops offered new ways to teach. Connections Joplin collaborative workspaceThree weeks into the first year at the mall, a business teacher decided to offer her class in a blended approach: the class met face-to-face three days per week and had online expectations for the other two days. The new space allowed kids to hang out when they weren’t in class in areas with soft seating or collaborative tables. This began to break through the idea that high school students had to be trapped in boxes, only allowed to scatter as they move from box to box throughout the day. The concept that we could trust high school students to make positive choices with time is the tip of the iceberg for our plans for the permanent facility.

Another new class embraced the idea of a personalized learning approach. A donation to begin a cooperative project with a St. Louis-area high school has resulted in high school science students being published in peer-reviewed journals. Students were engaged in developing their own research problems, which were presented to their peers at the other school. Imagine the joy in learning as students are unleashed to explore and study things relevant to their passions!

Facility Design that Supports Learning

“The mall school,” as it is sometimes called, certainly has a different feel. It has many design elements that provide for flexibility and encourages collaboration among students and staff.Connections Joplin flexible classrooms

  • There are two different types of moving walls that allow classrooms to spill out into the hallway.
  • Some classrooms have an assortment of table shapes.
  • There are ample soft-seating areas for students to utilize in the wide hallways.
  • Small conference rooms are available for a variety of purposes including student use for group projects.
  • Tables are available in the hallway where multiple laptops can be plugged in for collaborative work.

The new permanent high school will include many of these features and more as we implement a college- and career-focused education. Additionally, as we rebuild, we are integrating our area vocational technical school into the high school. Career-focused classrooms will provide spaces for real-world applications; the culinary arts program, for example, will have a restaurant area. Furniture will again be used to enhance learning— a teacher might book a room with easily movable chairs for cooperative learning activities or a high-tech room with three projectors for a presentation that is an integral part of the instruction. Even the building itself will be a tool for learning, including studying energy usage.

Long Term Plans

There are three major areas of focus that are big shifts from how we previously provided education:

Career Paths

Beginning as freshmen, every one of the 2,200 students in our comprehensive high school will select one of five career paths or a personalized combination. The five options decided during one of our Dream meetings include: Arts and Communication, Health Sciences, Technical Sciences, Business and Technology; and Human Services. Each career path will have a pathway from high school to either a job that earns enough to support a family, a technical school, or a college/university.

Joplin Five Career Pathways


We asked ourselves a simple question: Does it take the same number of minutes to learn algebra as biology or art appreciation or any other subject? The answer: Not likely. We realized that we control when a student earns a credit, so we are redesigning the curriculum to provide multiple formats to deliver content and methods for students to prove subject mastery. For instance, a student could take courses in traditional, blended or entirely online formats, or even ones that change from week to week to best suit the content. Still other courses might be entirely contained in a handbook that students can study and test for mastery like a driver's license test.

We are also questioning the traditional 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. school day and how school is structured in semesters. Some courses will be offered outside of the “normal” school day. The length of time courses are offered may vary as well. Teachers will determine the best use of time for specific classes. An example could be that art appreciation might be six Saturdays during which students are taken to nearby cities to actually experience art.

Student Empowerment

Students' personal motivation and focus will guide how quickly they move through the requirements to delve deeper into career-focused courses. This includes making time for internships, additional rigorous AP/dual credit or certification courses related to their future plans. We believe that by providing various avenues for delivering content and proving mastery, students can accelerate through normal high school requirements. Thus, we will offer opportunities to graduate with career certifications, internship experiences and more college credit than currently possible, including earning an associate’s degree by high school graduation.

Recovery to Realization

In the hours and beginning weeks after the tornado, there was a lot of talk about recovery. The definition of recovery implies the concept of back to normal. Joplin Schools has moved beyond recovery to innovation and realization. We believe we are truly reinventing high school education by putting what our students need to be successful in life at the forefront of decisions.

From Historic Devastation to Cutting-Edge Design: How Joplin HS Rebuilt in 84 Days

This January we will begin enrollment processes for the new high school and technical school. The journey hasn’t been easy, but when we discuss the changes with our students they express their excitement. When I share the vision with adults many indicate their paths in life would have been different with a high school experience like the one we will provide. The tornado caused tremendous change. I’m proud that Joplin Schools turned that change into a positive future for our students.

  • Joplin High School main entrance built in the 1950s.
  • The main entrance of the high school just days after it took a direct hit from a slow moving EF-5 tornado.
  • The destruction was not what one would expect. This classroom is missing the wall and the ceiling is gone, but the computers are sitting right in place. We found classrooms where everything was gone except the bulletin boards which were still fully intact.
  • This is the longest hallway in the old high school, which became a wind tunnel. At the far end, a pop machine moved in a Z fashion from a cross hall down this hall and into an elevator. Schools need to reevaluate safe locations. Hallways are not safe.
  • A special place in the old high school called Eagle Alley. This was the main place seniors hung out and associated with a history of fun times.
  • The new Eagle Alley at the mall, with the sign from the old school. The “wow factor” of the mall high school helped students transition after the tornado.
  • The high school at the mall has a different feel to it. Most people describe it as a community college feel. This is one of five often-utilized spaces designed for students to work collaboratively or for teachers to spread their classes into the halls for instruction.
  • One of the large project classrooms. Every classroom was equipped with a SmartBoard, since we had those prior to the tornado. Most classrooms have a variety of student table shapes ranging from individual triangle tables to round tables to the rectangles pictured here.
  • This coffee shop was included into the new design at the request of the business department. Run by the business students, the coffee shop brings many students to school early for a cup at JoJo‘s. A great example of the real-life learning we are utilizing in our textbookless school.


Angie's List of Resources for Educators

Rebuilding for 21st Century Learning

Joplin HS 21st Century Resources

Joplin High School Technology site

School Furniture, Facilities and Environment

The Third Teacher
"The Educational Workplace" Report
Brain Spaces

New Learning and Change

Design Thinking for Educators toolkit

Technology and Professional Development

eMINTS National Center

Connections Joplin Angie Besendorfer new building construction


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