BRONZEVILLE — Wendell Phillips Academy High School teacher Michael Mancini began training to run a marathon in July, with the intention of running in his hometown Boston Marathon this spring.
The strength coach, who won two state championships with the Phillips football team, planned to run and raise money to launch a STEM and computer science department at the Bronzeville high school.
But the Boston run was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, so Mancini switched his focus to running a marathon through his school’s neighborhood.
“I hopped on Google saying, ‘How can I map this out to get to 26.2 [miles]?'” Mancini said. “I made a couple of courses that started and ended at the school,” then started reaching out to local businesses and community organizations to get them “as involved as possible.”
The Bronzeville marathon is scheduled for May 15, by which point Mancini hopes to have raised $250,000 to pay for teachers and a robotics lab. If he does, the STEM department can debut at Phillips as soon as the 2021–22 school year.
That money could support one to two salaried teachers for two years, Mancini said.
As the economy grows even more technology-focused, “you’re going to tell a computer what to do, or vice versa,” Mancini said. “Not giving [students] that education, giving them that opportunity, is doing them a disservice.”
Phillips students “need access to coding, computer science, robotics and AI classes” to determine whether they’re skilled and interested in those fields before graduation, Mancini said.
People have donated $9,000 to Mancini’s GoFundMe as of Tuesday. He’s working to solicit corporations and apply for grants to fill in the gaps. He’s already received 10 rocket kits and a grant from Pitsco Education, which includes a voucher to be spent in fall 2021.
The “absurdity” of Mancini — who capped past runs at a quarter-mile — “even thinking about running a marathon was supposed to be the hook” for potential donors, he said.
Mancini has raised the need for STEM resources at Phillips since becoming a teacher there in 2010, but there have “always been budget issues, and it’s just never happened,” he said.
If Mancini raises the $250,000, the money would be donated to Chicago Public Schools, which would allocate the funds for a position and equipment at Phillips.
If he hits his goal, “there’s no reason this can’t happen next year,” Principal Matthew Sullivan said. Mancini has Sullivan’s word that all money raised will support STEM education at Phillips in some form.
Even if Mancini’s lofty goal falls short, the funds could go toward new equipment for existing science classes or creating an after-school club, Sullivan said. If more than $250,000 is raised, it’ll pay for “whatever else he wants,” including the “possibility for more construction” on-site.
The principal also plans to engage with faculty at other schools with STEM departments to see how Phillips’ department can be successful.
Sullivan, who joined the Phillips staff as a teacher alongside Mancini in 2010, is excited at the prospect of improving the quality of education at the school. It was rated among the “lowest-performing” in the state for 2019.
“I think it’s cool that an idea that the dude came up with during our closure in the spring has come to fruition,” Sullivan said. “He can generate more noise doing it locally than if he went to Boston, so I think [the postponement] is a blessing, truthfully.”
A STEM department at Phillips is “definitely something that the Bronzeville community needs, especially in this area of educational equity,” said Seville Spearman, program manager for the Chicago Urban League.
The organization, which “strives for equity and access” for Black Chicagoans in education and other quality of life aspects, is already a partner in a mentoring program at the school, Spearman said.
“Expanding that to include STEM work at the high school level, especially with Phillips being such a landmark school in the community given its history, I think it’s going to be a great partnership,” Spearman said.