When Joshua Mercer did his student teaching in the
Chicago Public School system seven years ago, he realized many of
the kids, especially the boys, were far behind in math and reading.
He wasn't sure how to help, until his personal life came into
On weekends, Mercer used the school's gym to play
basketball with friends. His students soon caught wind of the games
and wanted to play, too.
That's when the pieces came together.
"I told them the only way they could come is if they did
math or reading," Mercer says. So on Saturdays, he and a couple of
his basketball buddies began tutoring the boys before letting them
join in on the court. He started charging his other friends $3 to
play basketball so they could buy the kids T-shirts for their
games. It grew from there.
The 29-year-old teacher has been running a successful
basketball and academic camp for boys for five years, combining his
love of sports with his passion for teaching. Swish Dreams is for
boys in sixth- through eighth-grade, mostly from Chicago's South
Side. The boys spend five weeks in camp, with mornings devoted to
math and reading and afternoons spent playing basketball. Mercer
raises money during the year to subsidize the summer camps so
participants pay just $375 for the five-week session, which
includes lunch and T-shirts.
Everything the campers do is tied into sports. "When they
do math, instead of measuring the perimeter of a box, they will
measure the area of the basketball court," Mercer says. "When they
play basketball, they have to keep statistics to help with math.
They have to do pre- and post-game interviews to help with
writing." The boys also get traded, just like real NBA players, and
vote for each other for all-star games.
"It really helps them understand at a basic level how
important and fundamental math and reading are," he
Last year, Mercer had about 35 boys in camp; this year
that number is expected to double. His goal is to keep the camps
growing, to add technology, more sports and, eventually,
Mercer, the child of a strict, single mom, grew up
involved in community activities and wants to make sure other kids
have the same chance. "My mom worked so hard, sometimes until 8 or
9 at night. So she signed me up for things in the neighborhood to
keep me busy."
Now as an adult, he realizes his mom's discipline and the
busy schedule she created for him are what allowed him to succeed
and stay out of trouble.
"A lot of times, kids who come from disadvantaged
backgrounds don't have hope, and I want to be able to give them
Liz DeCarlo is the former senior editor at Chicago Parent.
See more of Liz's stories here.
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