Discuss as:

Back to school brings some normal back to Joplin

Teachers in Joplin, Mo. talk about starting a new school year and reuniting with their students, as the tornado-ravaged city still struggles to rebuild.

 By Kevin Tibbles
      NBC News

When the awful funnel cloud tore through Joplin, Mo., it stole the lives of 160 people, ripped apart some 8,000 homes and businesses and left eight Joplin schools in ruins.

And yet from day one, when people were still in shock over what had befallen their small city, they were determined to open the schools on time. Getting the kids back to school meant ensuring Joplin would survive. On Wednesday, those schools opened.

"There's not a book out there on how to deal with an F-5 tornado and how to get your school started again," says Bud Sexon, a local middle school principal.

Joplin's one high school was ripped apart from top to bottom. Security camera video from inside the school shows it all happening. So it wasn't as if the kids were going to be attending classes there; something creative had to be done -- and done fast.

Joplin's 'new' high school is located in an empty big box store at one of the local shopping malls. Yes, it is just across the way from Macy's and down from Sears. But this vacant space was transformed in just a few weeks into a modern place of learning. There are brand new classrooms and a cafeteria; and today the sound of a thousand bustling juniors and seniors echoed inside. The facility even has its own coffee bar and media center with an in-house television station.

"Everybody is just so proud to be part of the Joplin schools and a part of this community," says school Superintendent Dr. C.J. Huff.

".. and I think it just has to do with the fact that we've shown the rest of the world what can be done when people work together and do the right things for kids no matter what, you put the politics aside, you put the personal agendas aside, and you do what's right...We did that, and we showed the rest of the world we could. "

There have been well wishes and donations from around the globe. This morning each and every student in the high school received a new lap top computer, a gift from the United Arab Emirates.

A few blocks away, the younger kids are also heading back to class. The Irving Elementary School was also destroyed by the twister, so its students are now attending class in a school that had been mothballed. That building is now filled with laughter and life.

For local mother Shanna Helm, it is vital the kids get back to class. "If it wasn't for them to go to school, I think more of the 'scared' would be there. I think they would be scared, as if normal life wasn't able to continue and they would be scared. It already has changed so much that one more thing to be different, I don't think they could handle it."

Many of the kids returning to school come from families that have lost everything. So aside from pencils and papers, they received new sneakers and clothing. This too has all been donated.

I asked one 10-year-old boy about what had changed in his life over the summer. "Where are you living?" I asked. "At the Motel 6" was his reply.

So when school opened Wednesday, it marked an important milestone in a community still healing. Toward that end, every single  kid walking through the doors of the 'new' Irving Elementary not only got the chance for a little normal in their lives, they also got a big hug.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and school superintendant C.J. Huff address teachers in Joplin, Mo. at a rally before the first day of school.