May 20, 2024

One of Sue Cassata’s research projects when she was a student at Nebraska Wesleyan University was on the Genoa Indian School in central Nebraska.

The boarding school’s problematic past is well-documented. The school, which operated during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, worked to assimilate Native children into white culture, often amid abuse and exploitation. 

“That was part of Nebraska’s history that I was unfamiliar with,” she said. “It just created for me a natural curiosity of the Native tribes of the Midwest as I’ve just grown into an older adult.”

Sue Cassata

Sue Cassata

So when the opportunity arose for the Lincoln East High School principal to lead a new high school that will honor the legacy of Nebraska’s Native past, she was intrigued and jumped at the chance.

Cassata will serve as the first principal of Standing Bear High School — the city’s newest high school in southeast Lincoln named after the trailblazing Ponca leader — when it opens in 2023.

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“To create a school culture around an individual and tribal community that is so integral to the history of Nebraska is intriguing and exciting to me,” she said.

The move is part of a major administrative shakeup at LPS announced Friday.

In addition to Cassata’s move, Lincoln North Star Principal Ryan Zabawa will take over as LPS director of student services and Lefler Middle School Principal Jessie Fries will be the next LPS director of secondary education. 

Ryan Zabawa

Ryan Zabawa

Jessie Fries

Jessie Fries

Annette Bushaw, principal of Saratoga Elementary School, will move to Pershing Elementary School this fall.

Annette Bushaw

Annette Bushaw

Zabawa, North Star’s principal since 2018, will take over for Russ Uhing, who is retiring after more than 10 years as the head of student services, which is charged with overseeing a number of areas in the district, from social work, health services and student behavior.

Fries, head of Lefler since 2013, is taking over for Pat Hunter-Pirtle, who has been the director of secondary education overseeing the district’s middle and high schools since 2012.

Zabawa was previously the principal at Park Middle School for nine years after helping open North Star as an associate principal and has degrees from the University of Nebraska at Kearney and Doane University.

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Fries came to LPS after teaching at Norris and was previously an associate principal and coordinator at Lincoln High. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Doane.

The administrators will start their new duties July 1.

Having an experienced principal such as Cassata move to Standing Bear — which along with Lincoln Northwest is one of two new high schools opening over the next two years —  “makes all the difference in the world,” said Matt Larson, associate superintendent of instruction.

“It’s a rare opportunity and given her success at East High, we know she’ll be successful,” Larson said. 

Cassata was named the Nebraska principal of the year in 2020, overseeing the booming growth of the school, which has experienced overcrowding in recent years — which officials hope Standing Bear will help alleviate.

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She was previously an associate principal at North Star. She has also taught at Doane and was a coordinator and teacher at Lincoln Southeast.

She earned her bachelor’s in science from Nebraska Wesleyan University and master’s in education leadership from Doane.

Cassata plans to continue learning about Native history and culture. She’s read Joe Starita’s book “I Am A Man” about the Ponca chief and was recently gifted a book on Native wisdom called “Braiding Sweetgrass.” She is even considering a trip to northeast Nebraska.

But before she does, she still has work to do at the school where she says she came into her own as an administrator.

A school she’ll never quite leave behind.

“It’s a very tough decision,” she said. “I think I’ve been at East for long enough that it’s in the fiber of my being.”

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