Amid tears and cheers, a school celebrates its recovery

  • Article by: COREY MITCHELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 23, 2011 - 9:03 AM

A May tornado ravaged Sojourner Truth Academy, but the north Minneapolis charter school is moving on.

Teeth brushed, clothes pressed and bookbag packed, Ghamarrioem Williams was primed for school two hours before the first bell.

The 6-year-old had good reason: his first day of class at Sojourner Truth Academy was also his graduation.

The north Minneapolis charter school reopened Monday, three months to the day after a tornado left it in shambles, abruptly ending the school year and canceling kindergarten commencement for the school's youngest scholars.

Williams and more than 70 other 5- and 6-year-olds had their moment Monday, running and skipping to the gymnasium stage, clutching their diplomas tight and posing for pictures with royal blue mortarboards atop their heads.

On a day when reactions ranged from cheers to tears, the graduation and opening of school marked the end of a trying three-month journey toward recovery.

The tornado left more than a half-million dollars' worth of damage in its wake. It peeled back the school's roof like the plastic on a microwave dinner, shattered windows and littered the playground with displaced garage doors. Submerged in standing water after the storm, the gym floor wasn't fully replaced until Thursday.

Principal Julie Guy recalls students and staff standing in the school foyer in the days after the tornado struck, tears streaming down their faces.

"It was so devastating to see," Guy said.

Behind the curtain on the stage where graduation occurred, remnants of the school year's abrupt end remained: hundreds of paper bags labeled by name filled with the contents never cleared from lockers -- notebooks and knapsacks, pencils and backpacks.

After surveying the post-tornado damage, Keona Williams, who has four children at the K-8 school, didn't doubt it would reopen on time.

"I had faith in this school," said Williams, Ghamarrioem's mother. "I know they work hard for the kids. I know they were going to make it for them."

Other families apparently did too. More than 360 students have enrolled at Sojourner Truth this school year, up from last year's 340, Guy said.

'Best day of the year'

That Sunday when the tornado struck, Guy got 36 calls in a matter of minutes, asking what was happening to her school.

Monday was no less frantic.

An hour before class started, there she was, in her office mouthing instructions to a staff member, cradling her phone between her ear and shoulder, running one hand over a class list and opening a box of creamer with the other.

She was also keeping a secret that not even her closest confidantes at Sojourner Truth knew: Crews from a reality TV show will replace the school's dungeon-like basement cafeteria, untouched by the tornado.

"George to the Rescue" usually tackles home repairs, but news of the damage wrought brought them from the East Coast to the building at 38th and Emerson Avenues N., a former Catholic school that sat empty for years before the charter school opened in 1999.

The announcement drew screams of happiness from students and teachers; a public unveiling is scheduled for mid-September.

Ladina Whitfield spent the weekend mall-hopping, trying to find a graduation outfit for her son, Devlyn Upchurch: She settled on a tan blazer and brown and tan shirt-and-tie combination.

The tears shed Monday were of joy, for the graduation, for the cafeteria, for returning to life as they knew it before the storm.

As Upchurch approached the stage, Whitfield's eyes began to well.

"I'm proud, very proud that it finally came," she said after the ceremony.

Soon after the final bell rang and the last students boarded buses, Guy was headed home. Before noon, she had promised to put in a call to her husband, letting him know it was a take-out night.

"It's the hardest day of the year, but it's the best day of the year," Guy said.

Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491

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