Cara Riggs stands at the top of a stairwell on South High's second floor.
The faces zipping by her look mostly the same, but this fall, dozens more of them stroll past the “NO CONGREGATING” signs in bold, black type.
Riggs walks over to a few students stopping and talking during this passing period. “Let's go, fellas,” the principal says. “Let's go!”
South, once the smallest high school in the Omaha Public Schools, is now the fastest-growing in the metro area and the second-largest OPS high school.
The school has 2,222 kids, its biggest enrollment in 37 years and an increase of more than 35 percent in five years.
For the school at 24th and J Streets, the numbers and circumstances resemble earlier days.
In 1963, it was the Czechs, Slovaks and Poles, along with other immigrant groups, the sons and daughters of Omaha Stockyards workers, who led to a peak enrollment of nearly 3,200.
South's numbers bottomed out in the late 1980s as families moved to west Omaha and court-ordered integration led others to suburban Sarpy County.
South's recent growth is coming largely from its own neighborhoods, both because the Hispanic population there is growing rapidly and because students in the area are choosing South over other schools at a much higher rate than they once did. OPS allows students to attend any of its seven high schools, with some restrictions.
Hispanics made up less than half of the school's enrollment in 2006. This fall, almost seven out of 10 students are Hispanic.
The number of Hispanic children ages 10 to 17 in South Omaha nearly doubled from 2000 to 2010, said David Drozd, a researcher with the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
And last year, 52 percent of students in South's neighborhood attended the high school, up from 45 percent in 2007.
Classes taught in both English and Spanish, a popular magnet program that focuses on the arts and information technology, and winning athletic teams are among the reasons why neighborhood students may be sticking with South.
Ronell Grego and her son live in South's attendance area, near 48th and Grover Streets.
Her son was an eighth-grader at an OPS middle school when a friend advised Grego, “Do not send your son to South.”
Grego graduated from the school in 1989 and enjoyed her time there. Her son, visiting all seven OPS high schools, decided on South as well.
Four years later, he's participated in football, swimming, baseball and choir. He and some of his football buddies plan to get a three-letter tattoo on the inside of their biceps: “SOB” — South Omaha Boys.
“He really genuinely loves being there,” said Grego, who also likes that Principal Riggs sends her daughter to the school as well.
That's not to say the school doesn't have its problems. The four-year graduation rate remains low — about 62 percent of South's 2007 freshmen graduated on time. And South's scores on state reading and math tests are below OPS and state averages.
When Riggs took over at South five years ago, she heard the perceptions of the school being full of gangs, kids from bad neighborhoods and kids who couldn't play sports.
She doesn't hear those labels as often these days. Instead, she hears positive feedback.
About 48 percent of South's 2011 graduating class went on to a two- or four-year college or university, said Mary-Beth Muskin, South's guidance director. That class also earned about $4 million in scholarships. The 2012 class got about $6 million in scholarships, and South officials estimate that the college-going rate will increase to 65 or 70 percent once they get the final numbers.
“The truth is our kids are going to college,” Riggs said.
South's magnet of visual and performing arts along with information technology has helped draw students, Riggs said.
It is also the only OPS high school where some core subjects are taught in both English and Spanish. The dual-language program was added 10 years ago.
The Packers have had success in athletics, too. The boys basketball team has competed at state the past two springs, and its boys soccer squad has gone to state every year since 2010.
More students has meant more than crowded hallways. The school has made one classroom into two, created a makeshift cafeteria to free up additional space and uses every classroom every period of the day.
Class sizes have gone up, Riggs said, and the bigger the school gets, the more likely kids will feel more like a number and less like a student.
“It's important to find a spot for everybody,” she said.
People ask her how the school year is going with all these new students. Riggs replies with a measured answer: “One passing period at a time.”
World-Herald researcher Jeanne Hauser contributed to this report.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1074, email@example.com, twitter.com/jonathonbraden
High schoolers on the move
On average, more than half of all Omaha Public Schools high schoolers pick a different school than the one in their neighborhood, according to a 2011 district analysis.
Students opting out of their neighborhood school has become a particular problem for Benson High, which continues to lose students despite adding a magnet program of “Decision Science and Career Pathway” meant to draw kids from around the metro area.
The percentage rate of students choosing to attend the high school in their home area according to fall 2011 data, the most recent available:
— Jonathon Braden
Fall 2012 Enrollments for non-OPS HIGH schools
Millard North: 2,452
Millard West: 2,310
Millard South: 2,023
Lincoln Southeast 1,922
Lincoln North Star 1,885
Lincoln Southwest 1,844
Papillion-La Vista South: 1,655
Lincoln High: 1,629
Bellevue West: 1,585
Papillion-La Vista: 1,579
Bellevue East: 1,574
Lincoln East: 1,470
Lincoln Northeast: 1,436
Council Bluffs Abraham Lincoln: 1,321
Council Bluffs Thomas Jefferson: 1,226
Elkhorn South: 933
Douglas County West: 244
Creighton Prep: 1,016
Mount Michael: 220
Source: area high schools