Joplin Schools Rebuilt on Same Site

JOPLIN, Mo. — The linked campus of Soaring Heights Elementary and East Middle School opened in Joplin in early January. Both schools needed to be rebuilt after they were struck by the May 2011 tornado that devastated the Joplin community and killed 161 people. In total, 10 buildings in the Joplin School District were damaged due to the tornado.
Kansas City, Mo.-based Hollis + Miller Architects designed the two schools, which were rebuilt on the same site of the previous facilities.
“Because we were giving the community back something that they had lost, the project had a lot more emotion,” said John Brown, vice president of Hollis + Miller Architects. “Our whole team really embodied what they went through. We worked with the school district for a week on helping them recover. We felt more like a family and more connected through the design process.”
Before the tornado, the Joplin School District had already wanted to upgrade its schools to meet 21st century learning standards and had hired Hollis + Miller to help. Because of this, the school district came into the project with a good idea of what they wanted from an academic standpoint and allowed the firm to expand on those ideas.
“They pretty much said, ‘It’s not the past it’s the future. You guys do what you think is the right thing to do,’” Brown said. “This allowed us as an architectural firm to expand on the ideas of learning to really create the appropriate type of spaces for those students. Some kids learn differently, so the goal was to find an opportunity for learning in every space of the buildings.”
The design team decided to build the two schools together for both educational and financial reasons. The educational reason addressed the fact that kids learn at different speeds, so building the schools on the same campus allowed for the opportunity of mentoring. For instance, a very intelligent sixth grader could go and take a class with the eighth graders and vice versa.
Economically, building the schools on one campus allowed for both schools to have the same central plant and kitchen as well as an auditorium in the middle of the building. This physically made it a more responsible building.
While both schools are situated on the same campus, they still have individual elements that address the ages of the students occupying them. For instance, the design team created an outdoor learning park at the elementary school that features a tree house, tinkering room and theater.
On the middle school side, the key components are based on the ideas of students knowing who they are and being able to find their way. The design team created six houses in the middle school. Each house is defined by a color so that the students have easy wayfinding to their house. Each house has a living room with multiple learning opportunities. For instance, some of the spaces have retractable walls available for large groups of students to have one lecture at the same time. There is also a learning center for teachers, so they can all do lesson planning together. The teachers are not in assigned classrooms so any teacher can take any classroom space.
“My proudest moment working on the project was not only seeing the faces of the students, but also the teachers going into these spaces,” Brown said. “From the first day we started with Joplin in November 2011, it was about getting to know who the teachers were and what they were about. We got to know them as people and as educators. We talked about what their dreams were and from that came these buildings. For me, the project was about seeing all the different things that they told us come to fruition in a building that they were able to use. Once they got into it, they said it’s exactly what they wanted and needed.”