MABLETON — Niles Francis says though he couldn’t walk the stage this week, he’s proud to be graduating from South Cobb High School. But his path to graduation had a few more challenges than most.
In the middle of his junior year, Francis and his family lost everything they had in a house fire. And only a month later, Francis said his mother, a longtime substitute and later full-time teacher in Cobb schools, passed unexpectedly of diabetic shock.
“Losing my mother was rough. Losing our home was bad enough, but you know, material items, those can be replaced. But losing my mother — she did everything she could (for us),” Francis said, adding that she always put her family before herself. “Even after the house fire, she went to work, made sure me and my sister got to school every day, and she did everything she could to make sure we had everything we needed.”
Through it all, the South Cobb senior persisted. He said he lived for a time with his grandfather in South Fulton, making the commute to school every day. Later, he and his sister moved to Mableton to stay with their grandmother, just down the road from his school.
While he said it was challenging to balance his life and school responsibilities, Francis said his school community and teachers supported him, making sure he not only stayed caught up in his classes but also that his basic needs were met.
“The staff organized and made sure we had toiletries, clothes, things like that, to make sure we had what we needed,” he said. “And after our mother passed away, they were still there for us making sure we had what we needed to keep going.”
Through all of his challenges, Francis said he realizes he’s still more fortunate than many people to have a loving family and supportive teachers who care about his success.
“I just want to impress them, as well as my mother,” he said.
John Lackey, who taught Francis in honors U.S. history, current events and AP psychology, said the 18-year-old has showed a tenacity that is rare in people his age.
“He is incredibly resilient,” Lackey said, adding that only two days after his mother died, Francis was back in class. “I said, ‘Go home, take some time.’ And he said, ‘No, I appreciate it. I was just stopping by to see what I need to do for class.’”
A rare and a defining characteristic of the teen, the South Cobb teacher said, is his awareness of the world around him. Lackey said Francis has a keen concern for his community and a hunger to make real change.
“He listens, he studies, he thinks and then he acts,” he said. “And he doesn’t pretend that he knows everything. He simply wants to learn and find out more, because he really, really wants to make a difference.”
On top of honors and advanced placement courses, Francis has been actively involved in volunteering with local churches, nonprofit organizations to feed the hungry and with the local Democratic Party.
Following the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, in early 2018, Francis testified before Georgia lawmakers and worked with them to craft a bill requiring schools to implement lockdown drills.
“He noticed that schools were talking about safety when it comes to active shooter drills, but they really didn’t do it as much, so he just went down (to the Capitol),” Lackey said. “He’s one of those guys that instead of talking about it ... he actually gets involved. He’s one of a kind.”
Francis said he hasn’t decided where he’d like to attend college, but has applied to many across the state.