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For some Joplin students, school means 'the mall'

When classes begin in Joplin, Mo., on Wednesday, just 87 days after a tornado ripped through the city, about 900 students will take their seats in an unusual learning environment — a shopping mall.

"But this will be no ordinary mall," promises Jim Dunn, a spokesman for Joplin School District.

Joplin officials say they hope the learning center, created for 11th- and 12th-graders inside a vacant 90,000-square-foot department store using donations and federal relief funds, will establish Joplin as a hub of innovation, not as a district crushed by disaster. 

Click here to see a slideshow of Joplin: Before and after cleanup

There are no lockers or books at the high school, which students have dubbed "The Mall" though it is in a separate building from the stores.

"The design is what we call a flexible floor plan, with areas that are wide open for large group instruction and smaller settings that can accommodate a classroom and study areas," Dunn said. "It's a high-tech environment with large screens and computers everywhere. And Joplin's mascot, the eagle, will be prominent." 

Mike Stone / Reuters

A view of the destruction at Joplin High School after the killer tornado struck the town on May 23.

The May 22 tornado that swept through Joplin killed 160 people, including seven students and one teacher, and destroyed about 30 percent the homes and businesses in the a city of about 50,000 residents. The deadliest tornado in the United States in more than 60 years also devoured 10 schools, including the only public high school, Joplin High. In all, the district estimated the damage at about $150 million, more than $50 million of that being needed to rebuild Joplin High School, Dunn said.

The campaign is off to a strong start, with donors and volunteers from around the world pitching in:

  • The oil-rich United Arab Emirates vowed up to $1 million to make sure each Joplin student had a laptop this year. Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, the UAE donated $100 million to U.S. relief efforts.
  • Grammy Award winning singer-songwriter Sheryl Crow donated her 1959 Mercedes-Benz 190 SL Roadster to raise money to benefit the Joplin Schools Recovery Fund. Estimate of the car's value was at $50,000 to $80,000.
  • Nearly 30,000 volunteers, working 140,000 hours, have jump-started the rebuilding effort. Several Kansas towns supplied hundreds of desks and chairs; a Des Moines, Ill., church donated school supplies.
  • One resident, Mark Kinsley, enlisted his buddies and launched Rebuildjoplin.org, an online site that provides users with a list of resources for those seeking help.

District officials estimated about 5,000 students out of 7,000 were displaced from their homes. The district expects about 90 percent of the children to return to school this year, Dunn said.

When they do, each student will receive a new backpack and school supplies on the first day of school.

Jim Seida / msnbc.com

"All we did in the old school was sit in the hallways, which would have been a bad thing because we'd all be gone," says senior Chloe Hadley, who stands in front of tornado shelters in the mall's parking lot.

Chloe Hadley, 17, said she is ready to start her senior year, despite the heartache and loss from that terrible night in May.

Hadley said the tornado struck on an evening when her friends and others from the 445-student graduating class were celebrating their commencement.

The tornado's 200-mph winds were so severe that it hurled a church steeple across the road and into the main entrance of the high school. One of her best friends, Will Norton, was killed as he was driving home, thrown from his Hummer H3 when it flipped several times.

"It's been devastating," said Hadley, who is senior class president. "Not only had we had to live with that, but I have had to drive through the ruins and despair every day. You can't get away from it. It is everywhere."

"It will be good to go back, because it will keep us busy and keep our thoughts off of what really happened here," said Hadley. "I'm looking forward to it, even if it is in the mall."

Related link:
Photoblog: Tornado 'helps' Joplin resident downsize home