By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support local journalism.
Man to be 1st in family to graduate high school
Placeholder Image

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (AP) — It's taken him six years, but on May 23, 20-year-old Nikko Ramirez will be the first person in his family to graduate from high school.

A student at the county-funded Community Learning Center, Ramirez took his first high school course in 2008. Bouts of truancy caused gaps in his education, but he was determined to graduate.

"A year ago, I would have bet anyone any amount of money he'd not graduate," said center Director Michael Payne. "Now? Some mornings he beats me to school. I couldn't have asked any of the 10 seniors I have to do more than he does.

At the age of 8, Ramirez, his parents and 5-year-old sister piled in a car, left Mexico City and ended up in Murfreesboro. He said his parents never explained the reason for leaving.

"I guess my dad didn't want me to live my life there," Ramirez said.

When he arrived in Rutherford County, he didn't speak English, but learned to do so while attending Black Fox, Hobgood and Bradley Academy for elementary school. Grades 6-8 were spent at Central Middle (now Central Magnet) and high school began at Oakland.

High school, Ramirez said, was a challenge. He ran with the wrong crowd, and as a result, missed days and weeks of school at a time.

He said he was "just having fun" and "doing what I wanted to."

"My mom was disappointed that I was choosing wrong," Ramirez said. "There were a lot of distractions. I got lost."

Payne said upon learning it wasn't possible for Ramirez to graduate high school on time, someone at Oakland referred him to CLC.

Commonly called CLC, the school — located at the rear of the Rutherford County Juvenile Detention Center — is a Category I private high school. It was created by special application to the state Department of Education and receives full funding from the county government. County Mayor Ernest Burgess serves as the school's superintendent.

Payne has worked at the school for 27 years, alongside his wife, Kaye, and Barbara Hargis. Kaye Payne has taught science at the school for 24 years, while Hargis has spent 14 as the math teacher.

Admission to CLC includes what Michael Payne calls a job interview and a transcript analysis. The school was originally developed as an alternative school for at-risk teens, but most students served today don't necessarily fall in that category.

"For them, for whatever reason, regular high school just doesn't work," Michael Payne said. "We have three teachers and 15 students. I don't know if it would work if we went any bigger."

Last year, plans for Ramirez to graduate were nearly derailed when he and a former CLC student were arrested for breaking into a car. "I went to jail. I didn't like it, I remember that," he said.

After the arrest, Ramirez ended up in Louisiana, on the brink of deportation. He asked immigration officers to contact Community Learning Center, which they did.

Kaye Payne answered the call: "I told them that he was in school here and for them to look us up and check us out. They said they did, but they thought he wasn't telling the truth. I asked him if they knew he had a daughter that had been born here, told them he was on track to graduate."

"A couple of weeks later, he was back here. We talked to our daughter, who is an attorney, to see if the DREAM Act would work for him," Kaye Payne said. "After what happened, Nikko was scared to go to the immigration office but he did."

The DREAM Act allows students who were brought to the United States by their parents as minors to earn their legal status provided they meet certain requirements.

Requirements include entering the country before age 16, continuously living in the U.S. for at least five years and graduating from an accredited high school or earning a G.E.D. Applicants must show good moral character and proof that they have not committed crimes to make them inadmissible to the country.

Temporary citizenship is granted for six years and in that time, applicants must complete two years of college. Once that time period is up, another round of background checks is required.

"He's got big motives for doing the right things," Kaye Payne said. "As soon as he gets his diploma, we'll send off his transcript and he gets a Social Security number. He knows he can't get in trouble again. He's got a little girl to think about."

"Family" is the word Ramirez used to describe the Paynes, Hargis and the rest of the students.

Ramirez said it would have been difficult for him to get this far without them.

"Dr. Payne's nice. He's a good professor, and you can learn a lot from him besides school work. They've really helped me when I just didn't understand," Ramirez said.

His favorite subjects have been geometry and history, especially World War II.

"I like reading. That part of history is just really interesting. We've had good lessons in class," he said.

With high school almost behind him, Ramirez is looking forward to the next chapter of his life.

"It's been hard, but ... if you put in good things and do the work, good things can happen," he said.