Chicago teacher blends basketball, academics in camp for kids

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 play.

Swish Dreams
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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 says.

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, girls.

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 that.”

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