UPDATE: Obama to deliver commencement address in Joplin

Monday, March 5, 2012 | 1:43 p.m. CST; updated 2:22 p.m. CST, Monday, March 5, 2012

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama will speak at the high school graduation ceremony in Joplin, which is slowly recovering after being struck by a devastating tornado a year ago.

The White House said Obama will deliver remarks at the May 21 commencement. The president will also speak at the May 14 commencement address for Barnard College and the May 23 graduation ceremony at the Air Force Academy.

Obama last visited Joplin in May 2011, just days after the massive tornado hit. More than 160 people were killed, including seven students and one staff member at the high school, making it the worst tornado to strike the United States in decades. Joplin High School was among the thousands of homes and buildings destroyed.

Speaking at a memorial service in Joplin last year, Obama pledged to residents that "your country will be there with you every single step of the way."

The killer tornado struck the city of 50,000 less than an hour after the local high school wrapped up its 2011 graduation ceremonies. Will Norton, one of the students receiving a diploma that day, was killed in the storm.

With Joplin High leveled by the tornado, this year's seniors have been attending classes at a nearby mall. Other schools in the area have moved to temporary locations in abandoned warehouses and industrial buildings.

Despite the immense challenges, school officials pride themselves on having started the school year on schedule. While they expected a steep decline in enrollment, officials say about 95 percent of students returned to attend classes in Joplin this year.

News of Obama's return to Joplin comes as other towns across the Midwest and South are struggling with the aftermath of deadly tornadoes. At least 39 people across five states were killed in storms that struck Friday. In Henryville, Ind., tornadoes destroyed the education complex housing the Henryville Junior/Senior High School and the town's elementary school.

Another round of storms earlier last week killed 13 people.

Obama traditionally delivers the commencement address at a different military service academy every spring.

His appearance at Barnard, a women's college affiliated with Columbia University in New York City, is significant in an election year when Democrats are trying to use gender politics to their advantage. A strident backlash by social conservatives against a new federal requirement that insurance plans offer birth control free of charge to women has created what Democrats see as a golden opportunity.

In Joplin, student government leaders and a hand-picked group of seniors learned of the presidential visit first thing Monday morning, superintendent C.J. Huff said.

Huff's office worked out the details with the White House last week, gladly agreeing to delay the graduation ceremony by one day since the president will be in Chicago for the G-8 and NATO summits the preceding several days.

"The kids were genuinely excited," Huff said. "They've grown up a lot this year, just like all the rest of us. Having the president here shines a spotlight on these kids, and all they've been able to accomplish."

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