COLUMBIA, Mo. – The United Arab Emirates on Tuesday pledged to give up to $1 million to help equip high school students in the tornado-ravaged city of Joplin with laptop computers for the coming school year.
When the new school year begins later this month, some students will attend classes in a converted big-box store, but they'll have new Apple notebooks to aid their studies.
Joplin High School was among the many homes and buildings destroyed by the May 22 tornado that tore through the city, killing 160 people and injuring hundreds of others. The Gulf state's gift to the Joplin school district will help it further integrate computer-assisted learning in its classrooms, said Angie Bessendorfer, an assistant superintendent.
"The students are thrilled. The way we teach and the way students learn is going to be very different," said Bessendorfer, who added that the computer initiative has been a district goal for at least three years.
The gift materialized after United Arab Emirates officials read an Associated Press story in late June about the school system's struggles, said Dana Al Marashi, who heads the heritage and social affairs department at the oil-rich country's embassy in Washington. After Hurricane Katrina, the United Arab Emirates donated $100 million to U.S. relief efforts.
The United Arab Emirates pledged $500,000 toward the district's computer initiative, and up to another $500,000 to match similar donations.
The district, which set a $2.7 million fundraising goal for the initiative, will supplement the money it's receiving from the United Arab Emirates with proceeds from its insurance settlement, Bessendorfer said. That portion of the settlement money would otherwise have been used for textbooks, many of which will now be obsolete because of the computers.
"They have big ideas about what they think the school can be like," she said, referring to the teachers and students.
Despite the tragedy and hardship their community 140 miles south of Kansas City has endured, district officials say summer school enrollment was unusually large and the fall semester is on track to begin Aug. 17.
They have been busy sorting out how they'll continue serving the 2,200 displaced high school students. In addition to the high school, the tornado destroyed two other school buildings and it badly damaged seven others.
Half of the high school students will attend classes in an empty big-box store near the city's mall. Freshmen and sophomores will attend class in a vacant school building that avoided major damage.
Al Marashi hopes the gift will be start of a long-term relationship with the southwestern Missouri city, with future programs to include cultural exchanges.
"I don't want this to be a one-off investment," she said.
Alan Scher Zagier can be reached at http://twitter.com/azagier