Nearly one year ago, a devastating tornado ripped through the city of Joplin, Mo. The tornado was the deadliest in the U.S in almost 60 years, killing 161 people and injuring more than 900. But life for Joplin's residents is finally starting to return to normal.
That includes life for students at Joplin High School. The school was destroyed by the tornado just hours after last year's commencement ceremony. Although the school's old location is still in ruins, the city has found a temporary solution to keep classes going.
"We've had a lot of great experiences this year, and obviously a lot of tragedy, and we're working with people that emotionally are having a difficult time. But people have bounced back in Joplin, and we're still bouncing back," Principal Kerry Sachetta tells Tell Me More host Michel Martin.
Students attend school in two locations. The 9th- and 10th-graders are housed in an older building in the district, while the 11th- and 12th-grade students attend classes in a vacant space in the city's local mall. The 90,000-square-foot space was repurposed to temporarily accommodate students and faculty just weeks after the tornado.
President Obama visited Joplin a few days after the tornado devastated the school. He will return to deliver this year's commencement speech to the Joplin High School graduating class.
Joplin, and especially its students and faculty, are adjusting to these new arrangements and are looking forward to next year. According to Principal Sachetta, "We started a lot of new things this year, and next year is the year to refine it, rethink about what we've done, and just make those things become better year after year."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In a few minutes, we are going to remember Chuck Brown. He is known as the godfather of go-go and we'll tell you more about him in just a few minutes.
But, first, we are reminded time and again about the power of Mother Nature. Next week marks the one year anniversary of that devastating tornado that ripped through Joplin, Missouri. One hundred sixty-one people were killed in Joplin. Over a third of the town was destroyed.
I just want to play a short clip from reporter Missy Shelton from member station KSMU. She was on the ground a year ago and this is how she described the scene after the tornado had swept through town.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MISSY SHELTON, BYLINE: Quite frankly, as I'm talking to people, they're walking around in a daze. Even people who have lived here for years and years are having trouble finding their way around because the street signs are gone and nothing looks familiar.
MARTIN: The tornado destroyed Joplin High School shortly after last year's commencement ceremony, but the city has found a temporary solution to keep classes going and, next week, President Obama will be returning to Joplin High School to deliver this year's commencement speech.
Here to give us an update on how Joplin High School and the town are recovering is Kerry Sachetta. He is the principal of Joplin High School. We spoke with him last year just a few days after the tornado had hit.
Welcome back, Principal Sachetta. Thanks so much for speaking with us again and congratulations on a successful school year.
KERRY SACHETTA: Well, thank you very much for having me. Good to talk to you again.
MARTIN: How are you, by the way, if you don't mind my asking? It had to be a traumatic event and, you know, I was always impressed by how upbeat you were, even in the face of all that. But how are you doing?
SACHETTA: I'm doing pretty good. It's been a very fast year, as we've all thought about and talked about. We've had a lot of great experiences this year. Obviously, a lot of tragedy and working with people that's emotionally - and having difficult times. But people have bounced back in Joplin and we're still bouncing back, but I'm doing fine.
MARTIN: The campus, as we said, was destroyed. Where have classes been held all year?
SACHETTA: Well, we had two locations. North Park Mall here in Joplin had an empty shop that was about a 90,000 square foot store, so we put our 11th and 12th graders in that location and that's where I'm talking to you from now. It's very nice. It was a temporary build-out for three years, but we really - the architects and the construction company did an outstanding job of making this what I would call a 21st century facility for kids and people are amazed when they come here. So we're really proud to be able to have that and the students have responded well.
And the other half of our students, the 9th and 10th graders, are in a campus that we had in the district for quite some time that's been used for a number of things and, thankfully, we have that campus for extra area for the students.
MARTIN: So there are ways in which the community has really stepped up and that's a great thing, but are there things that you're still missing? Obviously, the loss of life is painful, but are there other things that, you know, that just - it sneaks up on you. You think, gosh, I wish it were different.
SACHETTA: Yeah. I mean, from time to time, that happens. You know, it seems like, you know, as much as you plan ahead - and everybody thinks of things that they - I lost this. I lost that. We still have a few teachers, especially, that are working to make their classrooms have more - I guess I should say more items, more equipment, those kind of things.
But, for the most part, we're doing well. FEMA's worked with us real well. We've had so many donations. The country has been fantastic. And the volunteerism - in fact, this morning, I was at a coffee shop just waiting in line and I talked to a gentleman who was here from Ohio, back again a second time, and he was - you know, just wanted me to know that, you know, the rest of the country is still thinking of Joplin and they're coming in and volunteering and working with tornado relief around town and the district itself has benefited greatly from volunteers, also.
MARTIN: And the president is coming to deliver the commencement next week. How do people feel about that?
SACHETTA: Oh, it's - everybody's excited, especially the students, you know, and everybody around the school system. The president coming to Joplin, Missouri, is very unique, like any town in the country, other than the big city, so we're preparing for the president right now. In fact, we're having meetings daily with folks from his team and trying to make sure the facility is just exactly what it needs to be and he's going to roll into our ceremony that we have planned and he's going to be a part of that ceremony, along with our governor, Governor Jay Nixon. And it'll be an outstanding night.
MARTIN: So what's next for next year? I know you have a big week to get through, but if we could look ahead to next year, what are you hoping for for next year?
SACHETTA: I think after we've got through this first year - and we've tried desperately all year - every big event all year has been made as special as we can make it. And I think we've learned a lot from that too. You know, sometimes, when you go year after year after year and you rely on tradition a lot and sometimes you start new traditions, and this is a year to start a lot of new traditions, I think it's made us go back and think about a lot of things that we've done. So when it comes to events for students and special activities, I think that's one lesson that we've learned, you know - hey, you know, sometimes you just need to think back and look at what you're doing and continue to build on what you've done in the past as far as those things are concerned.
As far as academics are concerned, we've learned a lot this year about lesson delivery. Our teachers have worked very hard and our kids have responded. In fact, yesterday I talked to several kids and we're excited about 21st century learning, utilizing laptops more in the classroom, kids having more access to the world and harnessing that, for good lesson delivery. And so that'll be the next thing, is continue to refine that and so that when we move into our new facility in 2014, that that's just a part of what we do and it's a great experience for students or it gets better every year, I should say, and we'll be excited for that.
So you know, I guess one of the things I could say is we've started a lot of new things this year. And next year is a year to refine and rethink about what we've done and just make those things become better, year after year after year.
MARTIN: Well, thanks so much for talking to us again.
SACHETTA: Any time.
MARTIN: Kerry Sachetta is the principal at Joplin High School. That's the high school that was destroyed just after commencement ceremonies last year because of a devastating tornado that ripped through Missouri. And he was kind enough to join us by phone from his office at the temporary facility.
Principal, thank you so much for speaking with us.
SACHETTA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.