Cara Riggs, the principal who helmed the struggling Omaha South High School during a period of enrollment explosion, climbing college-going rates and renewed athletic success, will step down at the end of the school year.
Riggs plans to move to California, where she has family. She'll also be following her daughter Shelby, who will graduate this year from South High School and plans to attend college out West. In California, Riggs plans to do some consulting and life coaching. At 51, she's four years shy of retiring from OPS.
“It's just an area of the country I've been visiting for a long time and have decided that I don't have to be a guest anymore and can pursue that,” she said.
It's a time of some transition and uncertainty for the longtime educator. Riggs has been diagnosed with breast cancer, which is unrelated to her early retirement from OPS.
On Monday, she'll undergo a double mastectomy to reduce her risk of recurrence.
During a regularly scheduled mammogram, she said, a mass was found on her left breast, and an ultrasound discovered a second mass.
Riggs has told students and staff about her cancer.
“I just felt like being transparent about it was important to me,” she said. “(Students) need to see it being done with toughness and no fear.”
Assistant Principal Julie Johnson will run the school during Riggs' medical leave, which is expected to last four to six weeks, pending further treatment. Her successor for the 2014-15 school year has not yet been selected.
Staff members will remember Riggs, who grew up in the Raven Oaks neighborhood and graduated from Northwest High School in 1980, for taking chances.
South, once the smallest high school in the Omaha Public Schools, is now the fastest-growing school in the metro area and the second-largest OPS high school, due in part to the area's ballooning Hispanic population.
As principal, Riggs was apt to give kids a second chance, said Joe Maass, South soccer coach for 15 years and a physical education teacher there for eight years.
“She generally cares about every kid and even the kids who ... have gotten in trouble,” he said.
Paul Kracher of the Omaha South High Alumni Association said Riggs has earned the support of the community by setting high standards for students. And she demonstrated, repeatedly, that she could lead a school during times of trouble and grief.
Riggs was principal at Beveridge Magnet Middle School when 12-year-old Amber Harris was abducted and killed in 2005.
Last year, Montrell Wiseman, 16, a South student basketball player, was shot and killed by gang members simply for wearing a red shirt — the color of a rival gang.
This summer, 19-year-old South High alumna Melissa Rodriguez was strangled and dumped into an open grave. Her former boyfriend has been charged in the death.
“She has had some traumatic times in her life as a teacher, but she's come through them,” Kracher said of Riggs. “She's stalwart.”
And in a time of buzz-in school entrances, Riggs lets parents and students come by South whenever, said Johnson, who is her in 11th year as the school's assistant principal.
Riggs has even cleared out space for parents.
South used to have a room of South Omaha artifacts and memorabilia, Johnson said, including cow pens and aged photos of stockyards.
After a longtime Omaha history teacher at South retired, Johnson said, Riggs doubted that another teacher would come along and share the retired teacher's passion for Omaha history.
Riggs helped turn the room into the school's “Hope Center.” Every day, three paraprofessionals tutor students, and the school's dual-language supervisor and a counselor work in the room along with bilingual liaisons who are ready to help walk-in parents and students, Johnson said. The center also has a computer lab.
“She, I think, really opened South High's doors to the South Omaha community,” Johnson said.
Maass also has noticed more school pride. Riggs often addresses the staff and students as part of the “Packer family.”
Students, in turn, have returned the support. As part of homecoming activities this week, they honored Riggs. The theme of Wednesday's pep rally was a “pink out” for breast cancer.
The South Packers have had more athletic success in recent years, including last year's Class A state soccer championship and undefeated season.
Other South programs, including the school's magnet theme of performing arts, have flourished. The school's dance program went from two sections to 14, said Maass.
Riggs also has encouraged teachers to take groups of students on college visits during the school day, and the school's college-going rate has jumped.
South's 2013 graduating class earned $9 million in college scholarships. In 2012, South officials estimated the number of South seniors going to college would hit 65 or 70 percent.
Riggs, however, has not been able to solve South's academic woes.
Last spring, South's state test scores in reading tied for last among the district's seven high schools. The school's math scores were the worst in OPS; just 16 percent of the school's juniors were proficient or better on that test.
South's science scores, while still low compared to other OPS high schools, did improve 13 percentage points from last year to this year.
Johnson said that if state test scores showed individual student growth — how a student improved from the beginning of the year to the end of the school year — South would fare better