In a very public job interview, the finalists for principal of Omaha South High School outlined their leadership styles, educational backgrounds and ideas for improving student achievement at a community forum Thursday.
It was the public's first glimpse of the two candidates, South Assistant Principal Julie Johnson and Norris Middle School Principal Ruben Cano.
Omaha Public Schools Superintendent Mark Evans will pick one to replace outgoing principal Cara Riggs when she retires at the end of the school year.
A panel narrowed the finalists to Johnson and Cano last month, but the district decided to open up the interview process to the public and allow community members to submit questions and hear from the candidates firsthand.
With an enrollment of more than 2,200, South is OPS's second-largest high school.
South is known for a large Latino student body, dual-language classes, and arts and information technology magnet programs. Graduation rates are on the rise, but math and reading scores are still low compared to the rest of the state.
The forum was held in the South High auditorium. More than 75 people attended and were asked to fill out feedback forms listing the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate.
Cano and Johnson each spent 30 to 45 minutes introducing themselves and separately answered 10 pre-screened questions on topics including student achievement, truancy problems and working with South's diverse community, in which 36 languages are spoken.
Johnson spoke first and touted her credentials as an 18-year educator in the OPS system.
Formerly an English teacher, she's held administrative positions at Central High and became an assistant principal at South in 2003. In September, she spent a month as acting principal after Riggs went on medical leave for treatment of breast cancer.
Johnson said that her communication skills were prized among South staff members and that she had learned how to work with students, parents and community groups to plan events like graduation, prom and homecoming.
To improve student learning at South, administrators were adding training for teachers and focusing on differentiating lessons for different skill levels.
“We're not just lecturing students, we're involving them with projects, involving them with other students,” Johnson said. “We're just beginning and obviously there's a long way to go.”
Johnson described herself as an approachable leader and said she supported the continuation of South's popular dual-language program, where students receive instruction in both English and Spanish.
Cano, who is bilingual, previously taught history at South and became Norris principal in 2010.
In his past four years at Norris, seventh- and eighth-grade reading and math scores have increased by double-digit percentages. Those gains can be attributed to studying student data, raising expectations and increasing the rigor of lesson plans, he said.
Asked about his ideas for leading South, Cano laid out a system for disciplining students, including those with serious behavioral issues. He explained a program at Norris that involved mentoring frequently absent students and said he was prepared to work with parents to increase involvement.
“I don't need you to have a degree in math, to be fluent and able to read Tolstoy, but I do need you to be involved and ask your kids questions when they get home,” he said, in addition to asking whether they have homework.
Evans will make the final hiring decision in March.