Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

In Joplin, a Senior Year to Remember

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

In Joplin, a Senior Year to Remember

Article excerpt

JOPLIN, Mo. --

It was a label they sought both to embrace and avoid, a refrain overheard in whispers or uttered bluntly at soccer games, summer camps and national academic competitions: Here come the tornado kids from Joplin.

For the 428 members of Joplin High School's Class of 2012, tonight's graduation -- featuring a commencement speech by President Barack Obama -- caps a senior year marked by tragedy, turmoil and perseverance.

The president visits southwest Missouri the day before the anniversary of the country's deadliest single tornado in six decades. The May 22, 2011, twister killed 161 people, injured hundreds more and destroyed thousands of buildings, including Joplin High. Five other Joplin schools were also destroyed, with four more among the damaged structures.

The twister arrived hours after last year's high school graduation, forever defining the Joplin High Class of 2011 and their younger classmates as well.

"They had to grow up the night of the storm," Joplin High principal Kerry Sachetta said. "They saw things they never should have had to see."

School officials vowed to return to class on time. They turned a vacant big-box retail store at the city's only mall into a temporary Joplin High for juniors and seniors, with freshmen and 10th-graders at another location across town. A middle school relocated to an industrial park warehouse.

Despite the less-than-ideal location, Joplin students embraced their return to a school they saw as a refuge, a safe haven in a town otherwise gone awry, said Joplin High English teacher Brenda White.

"Those kids who lost something needed normalcy," she said. "And there was no real place to go. But school is a normal place."

The Joplin tornado helped tighten bonds, diminish cliques, elevate school spirit and strengthen community ties, students and teachers said. Fights and other disciplinary violations declined dramatically. …

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