Last month, everywhere I looked during NSBA’s Annual Conference, officials from Missouri’s Joplin Public Schools were talking about Bright Futures. The district won this year’s Magna Award grand prize for the program, which works to build partnerships among schools, community members, businesses, and agencies to serve students in need.
Today, the immediate future is not looking as bright, and the entire Joplin community is in need.
On Sunday, a massive tornado struck this town of nearly 50,000, killing at least 116 people and injuring more than 1,100. It is the highest death toll from a single tornado since 1953.
The event was the latest in a series of devastating spring tornados that have pounded communities across the Southeast and through the Midwest. Just four weeks ago, 315 people were killed when a series of tornadoes struck in five states: Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Mississippi, and Virginia.
According to news reports, the late afternoon twister destroyed three schools, leaving two others and the central office seriously damaged as it ripped through the middle of this city 160 miles south of Kansas City. Graduation ceremonies for Joplin’s Class of 2011 were wrapping up at Missouri Southern State University when the tornado struck around 5:30 p.m. The high school itself was destroyed.
Honoring the winners of the Magna Awards — the magazine’s biggest event at NSBA’s conference — is one of the favorite parts of my job. The program, sponsored by ASBJ and Sodexo School Services, recognizes school boards and district-level programs that go above and beyond the call to improve student achievement.
Another highlight is talking to board members from around the country and learning more about their work. Each year, it seems, I meet someone new at the start of the conference and then continue to bump into that person throughout the event.
This year, that person was Joplin board member Randy Steele. By the end of the conference, we had seen each other so often that it had become a running joke.
Bright Futures, the program Joplin won for, is no joke. The 7,747-student district received the grand prize in the 5,000-to-20,000 enrollment category for a community engagement initiative that has helped reduce its dropout rate by more than 50 percent. Bright Futures also has resulted in the development of more than 230 community partnerships and brought in more than $300,000 in cash and in-kind donations.
One unique aspect of the program is its use of social networking — primarily Facebook — in a “rapid response” system designed to meet the basic needs of students within a 24-hour period. The Bright Futures group has 4,800 people who “like” it; the district’s Facebook page has almost 3,000.
“Whether it is providing comfort to homeless students, eating lunch with children of incarcerated parents, tutoring struggling students, or buying a pair of shoes for a child whose family can’t afford it, every single need is being filled as it is identified,” Superintendent C.J. Huff said in the district’s application.
The needs are far greater today in Joplin, and in other districts and communities that have been devastated as well. Fortunately, the district has the infrastructure in place — an infrastructure that was being leveraged just hours after the tornado.
Communication always is a struggle when disaster strikes. Phone lines are jammed or down. E-mail is non-existent. In the wake of such a devastating event, the greatest struggle can be just locating people amid the rubble.
We have not spoken to the superintendent or to Randy Steele. Reaching people in the district via traditional methods has been impossible almost all day.
Except through Facebook.
Throughout the day, postings gave the district’s status on the Joplin Schools page. One, noting that the district was “in the process of accounting for the safety of our students, faculty, and staff,” had more than 275 comments in just six hours.
“I can’t dial out, but I’m safe,” said one.
“I pray for the safety of the rest,” said another.
“Thanks for checking on everyone,” a third said.
As the day progressed, postings were added to the Bright Futures page — requests for clothing, shoes, non-perishable food. A community conversation, in the middle of a town devastated, was starting anew.
Glenn Cook, Editor-in-Chief