Omaha South High’s next principal will be Ruben Cano, an educator with ties to the high school and its South Omaha community.
The Omaha Public Schools announced the hire Thursday night, one week after the district held a community interview for Cano and fellow candidate Julie Johnson.
Cano, 34, is currently the principal at Norris Middle School and will take over the top job at South, at 24th and J Streets, for the 2014-15 school year. He will succeed Cara Riggs, who is retiring in May.
“My experience working with families in the South Omaha community — and the knowledge I gained as principal at Norris — will be invaluable as I move forward into this new chapter,” Cano said in an OPS press release.
Cano and Johnson, an assistant principal at South, shared their professional backgrounds and educational philosophies at the community meeting last week.
Under Riggs’ leadership, South grew to OPS’s second-largest high school, a dramatic turnaround from its one-time status as OPS’s smallest, oft-struggling high school. The school’s current enrollment of 2,272 is the largest in 38 years, and it has become a high school soccer powerhouse.
That growth — driven partly by the burgeoning Latino population in South Omaha — brought with it an engaged, often vocal, parent community.
More than 250 parents and community members showed up to an October meeting at the high school. Wielding handmade signs, attendees demanded better security, increased outreach to parents and more bilingual staff — including, some said, a bilingual principal who could connect to the largely Latino student body.
Cano is bilingual, the son of an immigrant father who stressed education as the great equalizer.
A native of New Mexico, he moved to Omaha in 2004 and taught history at South High for three years before becoming the dean of students at Lewis and Clark Middle School.
He then became an assistant principal at Norris before being named principal of the middle school in 2010.
Under his watch, state reading and math scores at Norris, though still below the state average, rose over a three-year period, sometimes by as much as 22 percent. The school won an OPS Excellence Award for the 2012-13 school year.
“None of that was just by chance,” he said at the community interview. “We talked about being strategic, looking at the data.”
As the new principal of South, Cano will likely be tasked with overseeing similar gains in student achievement and graduation rates. While the school’s 2013 graduation rate increased nearly five percentage points to 72.5 percent, it still ties with Northwest High for the lowest four-year graduation rate in OPS. Test scores, while also on the rise, still rank low compared to OPS and state averages.