IN A SCHOOL district where nearly 50 percent of the students purportedly drop out, where less than 50 percent reach the proficient level on state reading and math exams, and where many are not allowed to take home textbooks, somehow, students like Tazhe Cooper soar.

Maybe because Cooper - the first African-American male to be president of his school's National Honor Society - aspires to become superintendent of the Philadelphia School District, from which he will graduate this week.

So dedicated is Cooper to his education and school, Assistant Principal Stacey Burnley said, that he has acquired a title at Furness High School, at 3rd and Mifflin streets.

"We jokingly call him 'the mayor,' " Burnley said. "He came to us as 'the mayor of Vare [Middle School],' so he's now 'the mayor of Furness.' "

As mayor, Cooper, 18, takes it upon himself to help classmates complete their college applications. He is senior-class secretary, has been on the honor roll for four straight years and has maintained a 3.7 (out of 4.0) grade-point average.

"He did more than most of the teachers and counselors - he did," cousin and fellow Furness senior Tabia Linder said of Cooper's college-preparation skills.

Last night, Cooper, who'll start working toward an elementary-education degree at West Chester University this month, earned another title: the district's first Senior of the Year.

The honor, which came with a $500 check and plaque, was presented during the first citywide Student Recognition Awards, held at the Merriam Theater, in Center City. Sponsors plan to hold the event annually.

"I have parents who care, and if you have the right principal, the right teachers and the motivation, it will all work out fine," Cooper said, explaining his accomplishments before the awards ceremony.

Conceived by district Superintendent Arlene Ackerman, the evening saw more than 500 students - 340 of them with straight A's all year - receive honors for outstanding academic achievement, cultural arts, competitive sports and high-school clubs.

The announcement of Cooper's name took on a nail-biting, Academy Award-feel as he was nominated with seven others who also had been honored during the school year as the district's Senior of the Month.

Cooper was chosen by a panel of district officials based on his achievements, awards, leadership, character and community service.

"It's not a shocker, because he does so many good things at the school," said Cooper's girlfriend and fellow Furness Senior, Deyonna Linton. "He's a person you can depend on."

Cooper's love of school goes beyond hitting the books. The education profession is his muse. He craves it much like other kids crave hip-hop, sports and video games.

He has already started studying to pass the teacher-certification exams. He has amassed six college credits. He has earned an armful of scholarships, including the $10,000 Ruth Wright Hayre "Grow Your Own" Scholarship, for students who commit to teaching in the district.

The South Philadelphia resident can't wait to stand in front of a classroom.

He was first inspired to teach by his principal and teachers at Abigail Vare Elementary School, at Moyamensing Avenue and Mountain Street, which he attended from third through eighth grades.

"There's nothing like laying your head down at night knowing you made a difference in a child's life," said Cooper, who has three siblings enrolled in the district.

"I love education. I'm all about teaching. Ever since I was little, I didn't want to do anything else." *