Edina teen triumphs over trouble with graduation

  • Article by: KIM MCGUIRE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 9, 2012 - 7:51 PM

Cavonte Johnson doesn't let adversity stop dreams of becoming an engineer and playing football

Cavonte Johnson walked into Sarah and Doug Jones' Edina home and flopped on to their couch, an arm draped across his forehead and eyes closed.

"I want to go home," the fourth-grader thought, ignoring the Christmas party going on around him.

Home had been a moving target for Cavonte, who'd been shuffled among foster homes and relatives since he was 2.

But Sarah Jones saw potential in the struggling, sullen boy who was barely able to read. Years later, he moved in with the couple, who nurtured his impressive math talents.

On Monday, Cavonte will graduate from Edina High School as an award-winning top scholar with a chance to play college football next year.

His transition from troubled kid to superstar student wasn't easy, but Cavonte never thought about giving up. "I don't make excuses," said Cavonte, 18, one of two students chosen to speak at commencement.

"That's the motto I try to live by. No excuses."

Cavonte moved to north Minneapolis to live with his aunt, April Conard, when he was about 9.

But when he was in eighth grade, one of his aunt's acquaintances threatened to hurt him if he didn't clean up his room, he said. He called the Joneses the next day to come get him.

By then he had been spending time with the couple, who had been his host family in a program that places promising urban students in top schools.

Conard knew the couple could foster Cavonte's math ability and offer him more stability. By then, he was acting up in school and still could barely read.

"Sarah is just one of those people who really cares about others," Conard said. "Once she loves you, she loves you hard."

For Cavonte, the turning point came in the sixth grade when he got a letter from his mother, serving a 25-year sentence in a Texas prison. She shared details about her troubled life and conceded that she didn't know who Cavonte's father was.

For Cavonte, it was a wake-up call. He became determined to avoid the bad decisions that had derailed his family.

"I was tired," he said. "I was fed up with my family. But mostly I was angry. I just wanted to prove everyone wrong."

With encouragement from his aunt and the Joneses, he enrolled in Hopkins Public Schools through the Choice is Yours program that next year.

While there, he assembled a time capsule that Conard received in the mail two weeks ago.

In it, Cavonte had written down his life's ambitions: "To be a professional basketball or football player." His biggest fear? "Dying in the streets of North Minneapolis."

Conard said she was taken aback. "Until then, I don't think I realized what a black boy growing up in an urban area like this must have been going through," she said.

Adjustments, all around

Cavonte's early years with the Joneses weren't easy. Sarah said Cavonte wasn't used to doing things like checking in with them when he went out. He often told them that he didn't need parents and he sure didn't need their rules.

Then, there was the age gap. The newly retired couple were in their mid-60s and it had been almost 14 years since their youngest son had graduated from high school. Now, they were living with a teen again.

"The plan was to spend the winters in warmer weather," Sarah said. "That was the plan. But plans change."

While adjusting to life at the Joneses' house was difficult, fitting in at Edina High School was even more of a challenge.

"I was tired of moving," he said. "I had friends in Hopkins. What was in Edina?"

As one of the school's few black students, Cavonte said he often sat by himself at lunch. That was his choice. He didn't talk to his peers and when he did, things didn't always go well.

Cavonte recalled a girl in one of his classes telling the teacher that he was "actually smart." The words still sting.

'You can do better'

Sports were an outlet for Cavonte, who had made the varsity track team his freshman year and varsity basketball and football by his sophomore year. He is among the school's top all-time athletes in the triple jump.

Academically, he started to challenge himself.

English teacher Martha Cosgrove recruited him to her Advanced Placement class his junior year.

"She went to him and said, 'You have no choice. I know you can do better,'" said Principal Bruce Locklear.

Cavonte and Cosgrove worked during lunch hour twice a week. He earned an A- in the class.

Cosgrove said books proved to be a great outlet. "When Cavonte read 'The Great Gatsby,' he realized he too had walked through the Valley of Ashes," she said. 'He said, "I know those people.'"

And the underclassman who often preferred his own company started to enjoy giving classmates hugs. He joined the student council and several other service-oriented groups.

Being elected homecoming king his senior year was validation of how far he'd come. "Honestly, I didn't know for sure that people liked me until then," he said.

'Deserved a chance'

Convinced of Cavonte's potential, Sarah worked to help him secure scholarships so he could pursue his new dream of becoming a biomedical engineer.

In February, he was one of 10 Minnesota teens to receive a Gates Millennium scholarship, which will pay for most of his undergraduate and graduate school.

"It's always been hard for me to think about kids who don't get a chance," Sarah said. "Cavonte deserved a chance."

University of Minnesota football coach Jerry Kill decided to give Cavonte a chance, as well. Even though he suffered a devastating knee injury during the second game of his senior year, a walk-on spot was reserved for him.

With the Gates scholarship and an A average, Cavonte had his pick of several top out-of-state colleges. He only seriously considered Minnesota. He hates flying and also didn't want to stray too far from the Joneses -- now called "Grams and Pops" -- his friends in Edina and Hopkins or his family in Minneapolis.

"I've moved so much in my life, I didn't feel the need to move again," he said. "I have a home here."

Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469

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