Since the second grade, Tazhe Cooper has worked to become a teacher.

"Teaching beats all professions, to tell you the truth," said Cooper, a graduating senior from Horace Howard Furness High School, in South Philadelphia. The community fails to realize, he said, the importance of teachers' roles in nurturing young people.

"It feels good knowing that a stranger cares about you," Cooper said.

Last night, all of his hard work paid off as the Philadelphia School District honored Cooper with the first Senior of the Year award.

"It felt so good," said Cooper after tearfully accepting a plaque.

"He does everything - everything," said Seth Kaplan, one of Cooper's peers. Cooper is the first black male president of his school's National Honor Society chapter, senior class secretary, a member of the yearbook staff, and a participant in the Urban Education Academy - a district program that prepares students to become educators.

"He is persistent and determined," said LeRoy Williams, Cooper's guidance counselor. "He has goals for himself, and they're within reach. He can see where he is going to be."

The recipient of the $10,000 Ruth Wright Hayre scholarship, Cooper has pledged to return to Philadelphia to teach for three years after he graduates from West Chester University. His dream is to be a superintendent.

He was honored last night in a districtwide student-recognition ceremony at the Merriam Theater.

He was awarded $500, courtesy of Office Depot.

The event also celebrated 500 students from across the district for a variety of accomplishments from academic to sports and national competitions.

"The wonderful thing about the awards is that we're celebrating a variety of strengths and competencies and talents," said district spokesman Vincent Thompson. It is not important, said Thompson, that all 500 students are academic stars. Some of them shine despite extreme hardships.

District administrators chose Cooper as Senior of the Year out of a pool of eight students chosen as seniors of the month in the district based on his achievement and awards, leadership, character, and community service.

Aware of his accomplishments, Cooper wants to inspire other students to "take advantage of all the world has to offer, because that's the only way you're going to learn."

"I want kids to look at it as a way of saying, 'If he can do it, I can do it, too,' especially in comprehensive [neighborhood] schools," said Cooper, who will graduate with a 3.6 grade-point average.

"Everybody can learn," he said, and it all starts at home. He wants parents to encourage their children to perform better in school so they can be successful.

Most students have to be convinced to consider careers in education, said Robert Pinto, Furness' education academy coordinator, but Cooper was different. "Tazhe came up to me in the ninth grade. I didn't know who he was, but he said, 'I want to be a teacher, and I heard this class is all about being a teacher.' "

Cooper has interned at his school and in administrative offices for the district.

"Sometimes they get mad because I'm in the spotlight," Cooper said of his classmates. "But I'm like, 'Hey, you can do it, too.' "

His leadership skills have been apparent to Furness administrators since his freshman year.

"When he came to us from Abigail Vare, his nickname was 'The Mayor,' " said Stacey Burnley, assistant principal at Furness.

Cooper said he has a strong network of family and friends that he draws on for support, including three special aunts.

"He has his head on straight to be so young," said Eleanor Cooper, one of his aunts.

Anxious to get a head start at West Chester, Cooper has already scheduled a meeting with the director of student affairs to discuss his plans for a new club to help Philadelphia students get involved in their new college communities: Urban to Suburban.

Cooper will graduate on Friday at a ceremony at the Merriam Theater as one of Furness' 131 graduates for 2009.

"It's bittersweet," Burnley said. "You want to see them go and do even better than they did here." Success isn't something she questions for Cooper.

"There will be more articles about him in the next few years," she predicted.

Contact staff writer Traver Riggins at 215-854-5626 or riggint@phillynews.com.