NEWBURGH – Less than two years ago, Jovon "Jo Jo" Burks was leading what he called an "aimless life" on the streets of Newburgh. Experimentation with marijuana led to harder drugs and, eventually, an arrest.
These days, Burks is back in school, wowing his teachers with his diligence, his intelligence and his leadership skills. What caused this astonishing turnaround? A suggestion last summer from Burks’ father that he consider enrolling at Newburgh Preparatory Charter High School.
"I’d been doing drugs and running the streets because I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life," Burks said. "Newburgh Prep changed all that."
Burks is not just achieving, he’s excelling. In the last marking period, he attained a 97.64 average, the highest in the school, and his teachers say he’s become a student leader.
"When he first got here, you could tell he was unsure about the whole school thing," said physical education instructor Joseph Wolff. "But once he committed to it, he really came out of his shell. He’s an outstanding athlete – he could score almost every time down the basketball court, but he usually passes to a teammate.
"He’s been a natural leader, and it’s important for a new school like this to have people like Jo Jo," Wolff added. "There are a lot of kids here who gave up their first time around. They need a role model, and Jo Jo is filling that role."
Burks said he never aspired to such a role. When he arrived at Newburgh Prep last September, all he wanted to do was put his legal troubles behind him and get on with his life.
"I used to blame my old school for not enabling me to succeed, but it wasn’t the school, it was my attitude," he said. "When my dad suggested I try Newburgh Prep, I thought about where I was headed and decided it was time to stop playing games; it was time to re-start my life."
Burks said the first contact he had with the school helped him make that new start.
"After I applied, I waited a couple of weeks before I called again, and when I did, the person who answered the phone said, ‘We’ve been waiting for your call,’" he said. "It was like they accepted me right off the bat. I felt like I was a part of something right away."
That feeling of belonging continued when school began, Burks said. Because class sizes are considerably smaller, he developed personal relationships with some of his teachers, and that spurred him to remain diligent about his studies.
"The teachers here make things easy – they break down concepts for you so you can understand them, and they’re really supportive of every one of us here," he said.
Burks’ English teacher, Stephanie Gage, says Burks will often stop by and chat with her before or after class. But it’s what he has shown her during class that has impressed her the most. Recently, Gage had the class read a short story by Langston Hughes called Thank-you Ma’am. The story is about a young man who tries to mug an older woman, but she knocks him down. Rather than fleeing from him, however, the woman strikes up a conversation and offers to take him home and wash his face.
"Jo Jo realized immediately that that scene contained symbolism," Gage said. "He said the woman washing the boy’s face was symbolic of him being re-born. He just nailed it."
Burks said he never realized he had such insights until he was inspired by Gage and his other teachers to apply himself to his studies. "I never tried to write essays before I met Miss Gage, but she encourages me and now I realize I have a real talent for it," he said.
Burks plans to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps after he graduates in 2015 and later go to college and study finance or engineering. But for now, he said, he’s enjoying every minute at Newburgh Prep.
"This place is my home away from home," he said. "I feel like a kid on Christmas morning, every day."