By Chris Kieffer
TUPELO – One week after a tornado struck their hometown, damaged their school building and tore through the surrounding neighborhood where many of them live, Joyner Elementary School students returned to school on Monday.
Its kindergartners reported to Church Street School, while first- and second-graders were back on the Joyner campus. The school’s kindergarten wing suffered the heaviest roof and water damage from the twister, while crews have worked hard since last Tuesday to restore the rest of the school.
“It is overwhelming to see their smiles and hugs,” said Joyner PE teacher Glenda Clay. “It makes us as adults realize how blessed we are.”
Church Street School, built because of the destruction Tupelo suffered from the 1936 tornado, had not been used for students since the spring of 2011, except for the smaller High School Advanced Academy that was located there and disbanded in December 2012.
Tupelo’s latest tornado brought it back into service, at least for the final three weeks of the school year.
“It has been exciting to see the kids come in and to see their smiling faces,” said Tupelo Assistant Superintendent Diana Ezell, who was a principal at Church Street School for 17 years. “It is like new life has been breathed into the building.”
Signs welcomed students back to both schools, including a trail of markers that pointed the way from Joyner’s campus to Church Street. Neighbors who live near Church Street also posted welcome notes to the kindergartners, including one that proclaimed “We’re really glad you’re here.”
Joyner’s hallways were lined with letters of support written by students and teachers from other schools, and Tupelo Mayor Jason Shelton, state Sen. Nancy Collins and Miss Mississippi Chelsea Rick greeted students, who used many books and materials that had been donated.
“It is a little overwhelming, but it is so exciting to see the community come together and really support us,” said Joyner art teacher Caren Barber, also the mother of a kindergartner, whom she dropped off at Church Street on Monday.
The day had an odd feel – there was the air and grandeur of the first day of school despite the fact that the year has only three weeks remaining. That was particularly true at Church Street, where students were adjusting to a new building and new routines.
Joyner School had a power outage in the morning, but teachers said it didn’t disrupt them much. Several of the workers who helped restore the school will remain available this week to help with any issues that arise, Superintendent Gearl Loden said.
“I think we’ve had a great day,” Loden said. “I think for a first day back, after what happened a week ago, it says a lot about the resilience of the community and the schools and all the people working together to open Joyner back up.”
Loden said the district will likely learn from the State Board on Thursday whether it has to make up any of the days missed last week, particularly Tuesday when all schools were closed.
Bridgette Scott said her son Turner, a kindergartner, was a little apprehensive about walking into a new school on Monday. But, she said, as soon as he recognized it as the place he and his classmates had attended a magic show on a field trip a couple of weeks ago, he relaxed.
“I’m emotional,” she said. “I’m sad, but thank goodness the kids weren’t at Joyner when the storm hit. The Joyner teachers are wonderful, so I know it will be fine.”
Both buildings sparkled, despite Joyner having received extensive roof and water damage a week earlier. On Monday, the school greeted students with new ceilings, brighter lights, fresh paint and shiny floors. Work to restore it was led by JBHM architects, contractor Century Construction, ServPro and Graham Roofing. Tupelo administrators, district maintenance staff, Joyner administrators and many volunteers also aided that effort.
“I’m just glad this school is OK,” said first-grader Connor Collins, 8.
His teacher, Allyson McGraw, said the class talked about “looking at the bright side of things,” discussing the people who have come to help the school.
“I thought it would be emotional,” McGraw said of the first day back. “I shed a few tears this morning, but it has been a happy time. This is not time for tears; not time to be a victim. That was last week. There is time for everything under the sun, and this is time for moving on and looking forward.”