On May 22, 2011, at about dinnertime, an EF5 tornado ripped through Joplin, MO. Less than a year later, Edudemic interviewed Traci House, Director of Technology for the Joplin School District, about the monumental progress the district has made to restore some normalcy to the students’ and staff’s lives.
In a matter of a few months, the district had to relocate entire school populations and have the new buildings ready. The goal was to start school on time and help students and staff find balance in their lives again.
In addition to getting the kids and staff back to school on time and back to their routine, the district made dramatic changes at the secondary level in the way they would teach and learn. They had to make these changes, you see. Textbooks and other materials had been destroyed by the tornado.
Rather than buy new texts, they gave each high school student a MacBook and taught their teachers to find resources online with which to teach. Teachers received intense professional development over the summer. A team of 21st Century instructional coaches continues to help everyone in school to adjust. This 1:1 laptop initiative launched earlier than planned, but it is going pretty well so far.
I have added video segments to this post. I invite you to view the segments for more information about Joplin School District’s recovery from one of the worst tornadoes in fifty years.
Traci House’s Story
Traci House has been with the Joplin School District for 18 years. Before that, she was a K-12 education consultant for IBM. Traci knows her way around technology, that’s for sure. She wasn’t prepared to have to navigate a “little mini-river” in her server room, though.
“I remember thinking, ‘How’s it flowing?’” House said as she described the scene. After making her way through the destruction in town and National Guard checkpoints, now she had to figure out what to do in her own little flood zone.
Fortunately, all the servers were on racks, out of the path of the water. However, the cooling system was gone, their UPSs were down, and there was no electricity. They would not know the extent of the damage until the services and utilities were restored. House was slightly relieved as she reminded herself that at least payroll had run and the staff would have much-needed funds at their disposal when their direct deposits hit their bank accounts.
Her relief would be short-lived, however. The Director of Payroll appeared and broke the bad news. Payroll had not run on Friday because some issues needed to be resolved. Texting started in earnest (voice communication was not possible). The team acquired a gas-powered generator. House described the scene as a “quiet symphony” of team members moving in and out of the tiny area where they each needed to do their part to generate the payroll manually. Finally, they managed to send the payroll and celebrated in a subdued way, with “quiet fist-bumps.”
The team came together on many other efforts as well. It was important to make sure staff had money in the bank, but it was also important that district officials had access to student and staff contact information. They had to start calling, finding out about their people. To do that, House and her team had to get things running again.
So, they did.
Hear more of Traci House’s story by watching this video.
Once the crisis had settled, the team could move on to removing temporary supports (like the gas-powered generator) and rebuilding their technological and physical infrastructure. The district made a creative and unexpected choice when deciding where to house the older high school students. They found a place at the Northpark Mall.
Yep, the mall.
Juniors and seniors now attend school at the Northpark Mall, in a converted store space that had been empty for a while. Freshmen and sophomores attend school in a building that had been used for continuing education programs. At the mall location, the technology team found that they needed to make a number of changes to accommodate their needs, such as adding fiber. The clock was ticking. Eighty-six days may seem like a long time, but it’s not.
The team often found themselves in hard hats, crawling along pulling wire, and doing a lot of heavy lifting. Thankfully, they had many volunteers – parents, college students, and others. We may often forget the challenges that folks face behind the scenes, making it possible for students and teachers to do their jobs. I’d like to give this team a <<virtual fist-bump>> for a job well done.
The new high school and other buildings should be ready by August 2014.
The 1:1 Laptop Initiative
Joplin was not the first school district to implement a 1:1 program. One way the planners researched the idea was to visit other districts that had a 1:1 program in place and they had some good ‘take-aways’ from those visits. They were committed to the program and had a long-range plan in place, but never expected to have such a short time to bring the project together.
I half-joked with House when I said, “It looks like everything here is on the Critical Path.” It was true, though.
With 86 days until the start of school, there was a lot to do!
When asked where the idea for the 1:1 program came from, House told me that Superintendent Huff brought the idea with him when he came to the district three years ago. Before the tornado, they were considering using a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) model for their implementation. After the tornado, something happened to change that direction.
The district received a $1million donation from United Arab Emirates and promised to use the money to add new technology. The donation made the rollout possible. The eradication of the district’s infrastructure made the project necessary. Once the district had that donation, they were able to buy the 2,200 MacBooks they needed and distribute them to high school students the first day of class, August 17, 2011.
Getting the MacBooks ready was a feat in itself. Imaging 2,200 laptops in such a short time is not easy. Even getting all the devices out of the boxes required many volunteers. The building they needed to use was not equipped to handle such a project, so breakers blew often and they faced other difficulties. Again, the district is grateful for the many volunteers who helped them get the laptops ready and helped distribute them.
Everyone involved in the 1:1 program experienced a learning curve in one way or another.
- Students had to learn how to learn without textbooks.
- Teachers had to learn how to teach without textbooks.
- Students needed to become “self-directed” learners in many ways.
- Teachers had to let go of some traditional instructional strategies and adopt others that were technology-based.
- Students and teachers needed to release preconceived notions of teaching and learning.
It was (and still is) an adjustment for all concerned. As House told me, no one could say the project has been a perfect success. However, what they can say is:
- Students and staff were the priority in the implementation.
- People could come back to school and back to a routine (going to school) that was familiar, even if parts of it were brand new.
- People could resume teaching and learning quickly.
- Teachers and coaches could create and carry out a personalized learning program.
- Stakeholders could expand their reach beyond the textbook – and were expected to, too.
- Students and teachers now use technology that will keep them “current.”
- A new sense of camaraderie has emerged from this experience.
Congratulations to everyone in Joplin Schools. Thank you, Traci House, for your invaluable contributions to this story.