Back to school: Smithville students return to classes

BECKER – When Smithville band director Jeff Colburn arrived at school on Monday morning, he couldn’t wait to begin taking roll.
Days after a deadly EF-5 tornado destroyed Smithville’s campus and more than two-thirds of the quaint Monroe County town, there was little that Colburn wanted to do more than to see who was present on the day Smithville students returned to school.
“While I checked the roll, I kept thinking, ‘Thank God you’re here,'” he said. “I hadn’t heard bad news about any of my students, but I hadn’t heard from everyone. All communication has been down.
“I really looked forward to seeing everyone today.”
The much anticipated reunion of students and teachers did not occur at Smithville, where nearly every building of the school’s campus suffered significant structural damage from Wednesday’s storm. Instead, about 300 kindergarten to sixth-grade students were sent to Hatley, and about 300 seventh- to 12th-graders will finish the school year at the Monroe County Advanced Learning Center in Becker.
“We are trying to have school again,” said Tim Dickerson, principal of the Advanced Learning Center, which has grown from six classrooms to 25, including makeshift ones around campus. “Schools are the backbone of the community.
“If we can keep school going, we hope we can keep the community going.”
The return to school was an important step toward restoring normalcy for a town that is struggling to rebuild. Fifteen people have been confirmed dead in Monroe County, although officials said Monday that all of those missing from the storm have been found. No current Smithville students were among the fatalities.
Those students have had a trying week. Some lost friends and family members, and many lost houses. They’ve witnessed gore and destruction first-hand, and they’ve spent the better part of their weekends assisting with cleanup.
On Monday, they were able to be students again.
“I think the biggest thing is restoring some normalcy,” said Smithville Attendance Center Principal Chad O’Brian. “It is not a perfect situation but we have made the best out of a terrible situation.
“For some, this is the first time they have been around electricity and running water since last Wednesday.”
Senior Jennie Avery, 17, was eager for the distraction.
“I can’t sit there and think about it,” she said. “I have to be doing something, keeping my mind occupied so I don’t think about it.”
The day was less about learning and more about healing. Most students wore maroon Smithville T-shirts or sports jerseys. The students hugged and talked in hallways.
When they arrived at school in the morning, they were greeted with multiple signs proclaiming “We love the Noles,” a message that was also posted with red cups pushed into the fence near the school’s entrance.
The Advanced Learning Center is also used by Hatley and Hamilton students for advanced-placement and foreign language classes. On this day, even many of those students wore Smithville maroon.
Many classes were improvised. Teachers didn’t have computers and other resources. Many students didn’t have textbooks, although they did have a large number of school supplies donated by the community.
Instead, students and teachers sat in many of their classes on Monday and talked about what they had seen over the previous few days.
Freshman Makayla Martin, 15, found herself giving out many hugs on Monday.
“I just felt the need to hug people,” she said.
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@journalinc.com.

Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal