KJ Kovac reads Tupac Shakur's "The Rose That Grew from Concrete" during his urban literature class at McKay (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)
This profile is part of a series on Class of 2019 high school graduates. Salem Reporter asked high schools in Salem and Keizer to select an outstanding graduate – someone who accomplished something significant, whether through art, academics, advocacy or overcoming obstacles to graduate. We’ll be sharing their stories over the next week.
When Ken Ramirez first looked at KJ Kovac’s transcripts, he thought getting the McKay High School senior to graduate on schedule would be impossible.
Kovac, a soft-spoken young man who often sports a “Rip City” basketball cap, had just 12.5 of the 24 required credits.
“It would have been really easy to just give up,” said Ramirez, who works with Pacific Islander students across the Salem-Keizer School District.
Kovac, who was born in the Chuuk Islands, missed most of his sophomore year. His mother died of a heart attack, and the family returned to the islands to mourn. Just after he returned to Salem, his father also died of a heart attack.
“They always talked to me about graduating, going to college, having a better future,” Kovac said.
Once he returned to school, Kovac decided he was ready to buckle down and work toward the goal his parents wanted for him: high school graduation.
Now, he’s on track to walk across the stage with his classmates on June 5.
To get there, Kovac has spent the past year taking a staggering number of classes. His fall schedule included double periods of core classes - two periods of English, math, science and social studies - plus three extra online classes to make up for missed credits.
His spring schedule was slightly less ambitious - no extra online courses - but still far more than most seniors take.
“I don’t have any other seniors who had the workload he did,” Ramirez said.
Kovac moved to Hawaii from the Chuuk Islands in fifth grade and began learning English then. For high school, he moved to Salem, living with his older brother, sister-in-law and their kids, as well as his mom. He thought it would be a better place for him academically.
“I figured that I can do good over here,” he said.
Kovac connected with Ramirez last August, when Ramirez was reviewing the transcripts of Islander seniors in the district, trying to identify students who might benefit from his help. Ramirez, whose position is new this school year, went to McKay Park, where Islander teens often hang out, to introduce himself.
He decided to have Kovac start volunteering with the football program to get his required community service hours toward graduation, and talked with his counselor to come up with the 11-class schedule.
At the time, Ramirez didn’t think it was possible. He figured Kovac would have to be in summer school or a fifth-year senior. But Kovac had no such doubt.
“I think it was hard, but I didn’t really care,” Kovac said. “I just want anything that helps me to graduate.”
Kovac didn’t have the benefit of family who could help him with homework. Every day after school, he spends three or four hours caring for his nieces and nephews until his sister-in-law gets home from work.
His school work comes after that, often “late at night,” he said matter-of-factly.
Like many Islanders who have come to the U.S., Kovac’s goal is to provide for his relatives back home.
Work on the islands is scarce, Ramirez said. The aftereffects of U.S. nuclear testing during the 1940s and 50s decimated many traditional fisheries, and rising sea levels caused by climate change have further eroded the islands.
Those are among the reasons more Islanders are coming to the U.S., which they can do freely because of a compact signed in 1986 which allows residents of Pacific Island nations impacted by U.S. nuclear testing to live and work in the U.S. without visas.
Kovac’s goal now is to study at Chemeketa Community College to become a firefighter, a job he wants because of the good wages.
“That’s why I’m trying to work hard, so I can take care of them, because life on the islands is pretty hard,” Kovac said.
Ramirez is helping him apply for financial aid and get ready for the college program.
Between his school work and family obligations, Kovac doesn’t have much free time, but he enjoys playing basketball and volleyball at McKay Park.
His extended family will come to his graduation ceremony, including relatives from Portland. The district has capped attendees at eight per student, but many of the school’s Islander kids are related in some way, Ramirez said, so among them all they’re usually able to get everyone’s aunts and uncles in.
After that, they’ll hold an island party with staples including barbecue chicken, Kovac’s favorite.
“I can make all my families proud,” he said with a wide smile.
Over the summer, Kovac plans to work - not to save money for his own college education, but so he can send money to his relatives on the islands.
Ramirez said his success will be a model for other Islanders in the district.
“All the other kids coming from the islands have someone to look up to,” Ramirez said.
Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.
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