BEVERLY — Joshua Mercer is a stats geek and a sports fanatic. It didn't take long for him to put those two together to help teach students about the joys of math.
Ten years ago, the Beverly native and Brother Rice alum started Swish Dreams, a foundation that helps kids integrate math and reading through sports and statistics. The program, which operated out of Mercer's garage for years, will have its first physical office at 2101 W. 95th St. this spring.
The group also is hosting a "Day of Service" mentorship and leadership clinic for student-athletes on Jan. 23.
It all started when Mercer began teaching entrepreneurship and physical education at ACE Technical Charter High School in Washington Park in 2005. He was also the school’s sophomore boys basketball coach.
"When I was a kid, I loved reading Sports Illustrated for Kids. I played baseball so I wanted to calculate my own stats," Mercer said. "I used to love looking up statistics for baseball players. So I showed my [students] how to calculate their shooting percentage and field goal percentage. That helped them become better players."
Kids who love sports often do not see the connection with math, he explained. They might know how many points their favorite player averages per game, but not apply the same work ethic to calculating averages in class. Mercer wanted to use that connection to get students excited about math, and teach kids that there's more to sports than actually playing.
"When you look at the state standards for math and language arts, I turned it into a sports standard," Mercer said. "If a player made 7 out 11 shots, what's that as a fraction? What's that as a decimal? Or a ratio?"
It worked. And as his students started to win entrepreneurial contests, they asked why he didn't have his own business. That's when Mercer started Swish Dreams in 2006.
"If basketball doesn't work out, you can coach, you can keep stats, you can manage or own a team," Mercer said. "There's other ways to routes you can take. Swish Dreams took on a life of its own."
Before that, Mercer, 34, was working at a Chase Bank branch in Englewood as a banker when he found an opportunity to go back to school and get his master's degree through Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), a program that pays for tuition for people who want to teach at inner city schools.
Since Mercer grew up in Beverly, one of Chicago's most stable neighborhoods, he saw first-hand how the differences between the two neighborhoods can affect the quality of life.
"It was eye-opening in terms of the lack of education that our [Englewood] community has," Mercer said. "I was surprised to see that since I didn't grow up in that type of situation " Mercer said. "The one thing they [AUSL] teach you is to meet kids where they are. Not every kid likes to learn English through reading Shakespeare."
Once Mercer finished his master's degree at National-Louis University, he ended up teaching at ACE Technical.
"I jumped at the opportunity to teach P.E., [which] allowed me to create the curriculum to transfer that over to Swish Dreams," Mercer said. "Once they allowed me to teach entrepreneurship, I basically had the business plan for Swish Dreams. By doing that, I was able to incorporate math into my P.E. classes."
Mercer, a 1999 alum of Brother Rice High School, said that one of his former students, Rodney Walker, came in second place in an entrepreneurship contest.
Walker's story was highlighted in a 2009 movie called "Ten9Eight:Shoot For the Moon," a documentary about a group of students who competed in an annual business plan competition.
Walker ended up overcoming homelessness to attain degrees from Morehouse University in Atlanta, Georgia and Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
Mercer said he had 35 kids sign up during the program's first year. Before he knew it, the program's membership rose to close to 600 kids participating through camps and after-school programs.
"At first, this was an after-school program I was doing on my own. I wasn't looking at it as a business or something I could expand," Mercer said. "We eventually grew to having a summer camp, a weekend program, to an after-school program."
Due to the notoriety he has received through Swish Dreams, he has won multiple awards and titles, such as the NAACP Community Service Award, a youth development award from Howard University (his undergraduate alma mater) and Senior Program Manager of Chicago Urban League’s Education Department among others.
These days, Mercer is a franchise owner of an Allstate Insurance branch in Beverly, located at 2059 W. 95th St., three blocks from where he grew up and across the street from the foundation's new home. He says that programs like Swish Dreams are needed more than ever.
"Whatever it is, it needs to be consistent. It's important to get kids involved at a young age," Mercer said. "If kids can see successful people who look like them, the better decisions they can make."
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