At the National School Public Relations Association (NSPRA) annual seminar I attended earlier this week in Chicago I met and learned from a number of heroes in public education — those professionals who make student success and community engagement the focus of their daily work lives. I might add that in today's climate, they are the definition of "unsung heroes."
The highlight of my two days of learning were the sessions led by Dr. C.J. Huff, superintendent of the Joplin, Missouri, public schools, whose story was made even more dramatic by the district's response to the May 2011 tornado — the largest recorded in U.S. history — that destroyed the town, including all the district's school buildings. In telling the "Joplin story" and describing the district's leadership role in the rebuilding efforts, Dr. Huff began by telling his personal story of when the monster tornado touched down, thus putting the town and district's stories in context. I was reminded of the importance of context in addressing any complicated challenge and that each student with whom we interact has a personal context that either contributes to success or impedes his or her progress. But I digress...Dr. Huff is such a talented educator that I am forced to focus on just one of the takeaways I had from his presentation.
Dr. Huff was able to find a habitable building immediately after the storm moved on, as well as time to think as he assembled his leadership team. He addressed two questions as essential to the actions he and his district colleagues needed to take:
- What is the district's role in this emergency?
- What resources did the district have to fulfill that role?
The answer to the first question was 1) to ensure that all 7,000+ students in the Joplin school district were out of danger; 2) give adults "space" to respond to the emergency; and 3) provide a goal for the community to focus on in its rebuilding efforts. The resources the district brought to these actions were people and relationships in the community.
The district first deployed its people to account for every student in the district and ensure they were in a safe place. Most students lost everything: home, pets, toys, and in some cases parents, friends, or relatives. District personnel tracked down and accounted for every single student in the district. The tornado resulted in 161 fatalities, seven from the district — one staff member and six students.
To provide "space" for the adults to cope with emergency issues, summer school started on time and gave students a place to go with supportive adults. And the goal the district provided was Dr. Huff's public assertion that the Joplin public schools would open on time, 87 days after the tragedy. This goal engaged the entire community and helped focus the recovery efforts of everyone in the town.
The importance of a goal and symbolism — a countdown clock was placed in a prominent place in the temporary district headquarters to remind everyone of how much time was left to meet the stated goal — was emphasized by Dr. Huff, as was the importance of engaging all the members of the community in the district's rebuilding. That relationships matter was core to the district response and in a follow up session at the conference, Huff detailed how those relationships had been solidified well before the tornado invaded the town, thus making it easier to reach out and mobilize people quickly in the emergency.
We're all living with the reality that public education is under attack, but education heroes like C.J. Huff give us strategies for addressing that attack. As he stated, in most cases public education is misunderstood. It's our job as professional educators to involve our community in our work; make them partners in our efforts; and increase their understanding of the complicated, nuanced nature of what we all do. Joplin public schools story is one of people, resiliency, determination and hope. It is one that should inspire all of us to lead our schools and districts in a way that brings disparate parts of the community to the action before a tornado strikes.
Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.