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The Associated Press September 22, 2011, 4:37PM ET

Officials visit post-tornado Joplin 'mall school'

Students who attend the Joplin high school known as the "mall school," because it was built in a former big box store after a tornado left their district in ruins, told Education Secretary Arne Duncan during a Thursday visit that having the support of the school has helped them recover.

The May tornado killed 162 people and leveled thousands of buildings in the community, including 10 area schools that were either destroyed or damaged at an estimated cost of $151 million. Seven school children and one staff member were among those killed. Some schools have been consolidated, and Joplin's middle school is temporarily in an industrial park.

The 11th- and 12th-grade students attend class in a the former store near a Sears Auto Center and a Logan's Roadhouse that has been transformed into a modern facility equipped even with tread mills for gym class and a cafeteria with a small section that resembles a coffee shop.

Duncan, who was joined in Joplin by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, told student leaders that he was pleased with the work done to reopen schools, and he was hopeful for their future.

When he asked students how they were doing, one told him that looking forward to coming to school each day and the support received there has made things easier. Another student said it's still difficult to drive around the community and not think about how things used to be.

The old high school, which eventually will be rebuilt, for now remains a devastated shell missing walls, bricks and parts of the ceiling.

"To me, it's traumatic, but I know we're going to get through it," said 17-year-old senior Martez Wilson.

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