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February 20, 2014 | 12:00 a.m. CST
In the summer of 2011, three years after he became superintendent of Joplin Public Schools, C.J. Huff was faced with the task of rebuilding a school district after a deadly tornado damaged nine schools. The district lost seven students and one staff member in the storm. Lynda Banwart, who has two kids enrolled in Joplin schools, says Huff provided a sense of certainty after the tornado by promising to have the schools operational for the 2011-’12 school year. “Everybody needed someone who was that sure of something,” Banwart says. Huff saw the tragedy as a chance to start fresh. In addition, two new elementary schools and one middle school opened last month, and the district developed a career-pathway model for high schools that will begin this fall. Through these pathways, schools partner with local institutions to teach students career-specific skills and provide them with opportunities to learn from experts in a given field. Huff’s work has led to recognition at state and national levels. He is speaking tonight at the Columbia Council of PTAs Founders Day Event.
You were the 2013 Missouri Superintendent of the Year. What did that mean to you?
Personally, what it means is that I’ve done a good job hiring some great people. They make me look better than I deserve, and I’m really proud of them. Nobody who leads an organization and leads it well does it on their own. So that award is quite an honor, but at the same time, it’s reflective of the effort of everybody in this district.
Where: Rock Bridge High Performance Arts Center
When: Tonight, 7.15 p.m.
What are you most proud of from your work in Joplin?
The greatest day of my professional career was Aug. 17, 2011, when we opened the schools on time, just like we promised, after the storm. That was a great day, and I thought it couldn’t get any better than that. When we opened up those new schools just a few weeks ago, seeing the kids in those schools back in their permanent facilities as opposed to their temporary facilities was a very proud moment and probably the new best day of my career. I’ll never forget the best moment of that day. There was a teacher who asked a second grader, “What do you think of the new building? Does it feel like school?” And this little boy said, “Nope, it feels like happiness.” It just doesn’t get any better than that.
What have you learned from the tornado and its aftermath?
From a leadership perspective, if you think about developing plans, make them grand plans, and don’t worry about all the detailed steps that it takes to get there. Create the vision, and then every single day take steps toward that vision. Be very deliberate about the actions you take, and always keep that vision, that focus, in front of you, and you’ll get there.
How do you see Joplin continuing to rebuild?
For me, it’s just about taking this opportunity to build back better than we were before. We lost 161 people in the storm, and really we have an obligation as a community to build back better. We owe it to them, to the legacy of those folks who lost their lives to build back better. I think that everybody on this end is doing everything they can to make that happen. So I guess that’s what I wish for Joplin. Just coming back bigger, better, stronger and continuing to try to be that role model for the rest of the country.
What are you looking forward to speaking with Columbians about?
I think my message when I come to Columbia is going to be about the importance of relationships. Nobody can argue that our children are our future, and we all have a responsibility as adults to work hard to ensure this next generation has everything they need to be successful. I think that’s going to be the core of my message: children are our common ground. Let’s see what we can do to work together statewide to support our kids and work in a collaborative way to make sure that every child has what they need to be successful in school and, hopefully, in life.
When you speak about your work, what do you hope to achieve?
I hope we inspire people to know they can do anything once they set their mind to it. But the biggest reason is that it’s an opportunity to represent Joplin schools and say thank you for all the support. We would not be where we are today on our own, no question about that. For me personally, it’s about having the opportunity to show our appreciation.