A year ago, Isaac Appiahene was new to the United States, struggling with a language barrier and a world where he knew almost no one. He encountered problems at school and was told he didn't belong there.

On Thursday, the native of Ghana is scheduled to don a bright blue cap and gown and accept a high school diploma with top honors, achieved with lightning speed and prodigious effort. Appiahene starts college classes soon, with an eye toward a nursing degree that will help him reach the goal that pushed him to leave Ghana in the first place.

"I came to learn, to find a job, to help my family," said Appiahene, 18. "When you come to America, you have opportunities. You can take care of your family."

Appiahene's father left Kumasi, Ghana when his boy was a toddler. Other family members followed, but Appiahene stayed until he was 17. He thrived in school there. He had many friends.

But he knew more awaited him in the U.S., Appiahene said. He arrived in Philadelphia last June, moving into a house with his father, stepmother, and four younger brothers he had never met. He felt urgency to help, he said — his father works two jobs, primarily as a supermarket stocker, to make ends meet. His stepmother is ill and cannot work.

Appiahene reported to Martin Luther King High hopeful that he could finish his last year of school, but because he brought no transcript with him, officials placed him in ninth grade. His paperwork finally arrived from Ghana, but school officials were confused when his transcript arrived.

"They did not allow me to finish," said Appiahene. "I didn't know the system of education here, but I wanted a high school diploma."

Eventually, Appiahene heard about One Bright Ray, an alternative school that helps those who have dropped out or are at risk of dropping out get diplomas.

He started classes at the school's Fairhill campus in February. To get there, he rose before dawn and took three buses.  Appiahene thrived, never earning less than a B. He zoomed through his required coursework in five months.

Isaac Appiahene works on a quiz at One Bright Ray Community High School in Fairhill.
CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Isaac Appiahene works on a quiz at One Bright Ray Community High School in Fairhill.

"I had many friends at home," said Appiahene. "Here, I had to stay indoors because of my studies. I needed to focus."

Appiahene is serious — not cold or uninterested, just quiet and determined. But his teachers say he was unafraid to speak up to probe and ask questions when he didn't understand a concept. On the last day of classes before graduation, he gave a presentation with ease, using a pointer to show photos of American immigrants at the turn of the 20th century.

"He's always on top of his work," said Dustin Yenser, a science teacher at the school. "He knows what he wants to accomplish and he knows what is expected of him."

Most One Bright Ray students opt for employment over college, but it was clear from the moment Appiahene walked in the door that he was different. He sought out Antoinette Muse, his counselor, asking how he could qualify for financial aid and whether she could help him fill out a form.

"Isaac is very motivated,"  Muse said. "Sometimes, students want to bring their past school experiences with them here, but Isaac bought in right away."

Appiahene knows jobs are plentiful in the nursing field, but that's not the only reason he wants to pursue that career.

"I like helping people — especially when someone gets hurt," he said. "I find a way to keep people calm."

Cosmos Appiahene, Isaac's father, worries about paying for his oldest child's college education, but he must find a way, he said. Cosmos did not have the chance to pursue an education the way Isaac has, and the teen has not let him down.

"He doesn't go with the smoking guys, the drinking guys," said Cosmos, 38. "He never insulted anybody, he never went against anybody."

Cosmos works seven days a week, often pulling double shifts. But he asked for a rare day off to be present at Isaac's graduation.

"He's my first son," Cosmos said. "I love the way he pushes himself."