How One Missouri School District Took on Poverty and a Tornado

Joplin, Missouri, a small city in the Southwest corner of the state, is probably best known for the devastating tornado that ripped through it on May 22, 2011. The storm killed 161 people and caused more than $2 billion in damages. Less well known is the widespread and growing poverty that is damaging the community — especially its students and schools — in quieter but no less harmful ways. But Joplin has begun to rebound, and the rest of the country should take note.

Three years before the tornado, CJ Huff, the superintendent of nearby Eldon, Missouri, was hired to lead Joplin’s 18 schools. His main charge was to raise the district’s graduation rate, which at the time hovered just above 73 percent. It quickly became apparent to Huff that the growing rate of child poverty stood in the way of reaching that goal as well as his broader aspirations to prepare students for college, careers, and active participation in a democratic society.

The Joplin school team conducted nine months of face-to-face talks with parents, teachers, and the community’s faith, business, and human services agency leaders in order to assess the school district’s needs. They discussed everything from the transition between elementary and middle school, to mental health, to mentorship. The plan they ended up with — called “Bright Futures” — is now a blueprint for school transformation in dozens of districts across the South and Midwest. Seven years later, Joplin’s graduation rate has risen to 87 percent. Here’s how Huff and the Joplin community did it.

Meeting Every Child’s Basic Needs Within 24 Hours

As a former principal and teacher, Huff knew how difficult it is to teach effectively when students are too hungry to focus, lack needed eyeglasses, are stressed out from spending the night in a homeless shelter, or, worse, can’t make it to class because they are in the ER dealing with a preventable asthma attack. Indeed, children living in poverty in the United States are more than twice as likely as their more affluent peers to miss at least two weeks of school and thus fall behind, largely because health concerns go unaddressed.

But how would a poor and relatively small city like Joplin succeed in addressing these and other unmet needs? Huff’s team drew on all available resources. They established partnerships with local health clinics, hospitals, and individual doctors to secure physical and mental health care, so kids were in school and ready to learn. Local doctors provided physicals so students could participate in sports activities, dentists volunteered to provide emergency dental services to children whose families couldn’t afford it, and kids were referred to mental health providers free of charge as needed. Hospitals and health clinics likewise stepped up to serve students’ health care needs.

In addition, the team reached out to drug stores, grocery stores, and other businesses to assemble a pantry that school social workers could use to immediately meet basic needs such as food and clothing. They hosted a back-to-school resource fair that called upon families and local stores to help all kids start the year well-stocked with school supplies. And they built up a Bright Futures Facebook page that enabled any resident to respond to more unusual requests — like size 13 steel-toed work boots (which cost more than $100), so a homeless high school student could enroll in the technical schoolwelding program.] (This Facebook page became popular with neighboring communities, including nearby Carl Junction School District, which in 2010 became the first Bright Futures affiliate.)

Developing Local Leadership and Community Support for Long-Term Success

Huff knew that superintendents come and go, especially in struggling school districts. And Joplin’s mayor wouldn’t necessarily be around long either. If the schools were to improve — and also sustain and grow that improvement — locally-nurtured leaders would need to take the helm in promoting good policy.

This kind of leadership development wasn’t an easy task in a city where many families didn’t view high school graduation — let alone college admission — as a top priority. Residents also didn’t have a clear vision of the interrelatedness of the city’s many assets and how they were all critical to the school district’s success. A key step therefore was to establish an advisory board comprised of needed allies from the city’s many institutions, including faith-based organizations to provide volunteer support, human service agencies to respond to non-academic needs, and business partners to supplement the resources that families were able to provide, as well as parents. A second step was for each school in the district to develop its own council that would work with teachers and principals to identify and address classroom-level needs and also support and train emerging, local leaders.

Embedding Service Learning in Classrooms, Even Among the Youngest Pupils

Huff and his team believed service learning was a natural fit for the district, but that it would require a different mindset for teachers who had long understood raising test scores to be their main objective, and who might not see the connection between service learning projects and broader learning objectives.

Service learning provides hands-on, curriculum-based opportunities for children to give back to the communities that support their education. It is intentionally designed to help students develop advanced cognitive skills while also building a sense of self-worth. Finally, it provides an opportunity for the teaching staff to showcase their talents and those of the students to the community. In Huff’s words:

“We want the students to understand their power to give and to help all kids feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves. Finding needs they can address, like organizing drives for the soup kitchen or, for older students, assessing water quality to support the local agency, is empowering. And it helps them grow into the engaged citizens our country needs more of.”

The same kinds of challenges that Joplin faces limit the futures of millions of students in rural, suburban, and inner-city school districts across the country. But the Joplin experience shows us that the learning needs of young people can be addressed, and that the right actions will substantially brighten their futures.