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Philly Style program gets students up and running

Kids participate in area races, and improve confidence and academics along the way

Steve Lin (right), an adult volunteer for the Masterman Students Run Philly Style club, leads some of the students down N. 17th St. (heading south) on November 7, 2016.  In its 10th year, Students Run Philly Style has clubs at schools throughout the city and they compete in both the Philly 10k run and the Philly marathon.
Steve Lin (right), an adult volunteer for the Masterman Students Run Philly Style club, leads some of the students down N. 17th St. (heading south) on November 7, 2016. In its 10th year, Students Run Philly Style has clubs at schools throughout the city and they compete in both the Philly 10k run and the Philly marathon.Read moreClem Murray

EVERY YEAR before the Philadelphia Marathon, members of Students Run Philly Style line up on the Philadelphia Museum of Art's steps for their scheduled photo.

With 100 runners in the marathon next Sunday, and 200 additional mentors and students in the half marathon next Saturday, Student Run Philly Style running leaders help high school students from around the city complete a race.

"When we are taking our group picture, it is one of many moments throughout the season where they get to see other kids," program director Lauren Kobylarz said. "They all know they are going to do something together, and it is the hardest thing they have ever done."

Students Run Philly Style is a nonprofit organization where 12-to-18-year-old students can run while learning from a mentor running beside them in each race.

Heather McDanel founded the program in 2004 and is currently a board member. Based off the Independence Foundation and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Philly Style started with 50 kids from community centers around Philadelphia.

Philly Style decided to approach the program differently with an emphasis on mentoring the youth.

"The idea was to take a powerful tool and have it be an instrument to transform lives in urban Philadelphia," McDanel said. "It started with a health focus because at that time childhood obesity levels were through the roof."

Today, it focuses on working with schools rather than community centers. With 55 schools participating, 1,300 student runners are enrolled in the program.

Working as a consultant for other organizations, McDanel continues to stay involved as her daughter, Azani Goonewardene, is a participant in the program.

"The single most important thing you can do to enhance a young person's life is mentoring," McDanel said. "We came up with this idea that seemed impossible and that arms people with strength and confidence so nothing feels unattainable."

The program gives each student gear, food, transportation and race entry fees for no cost. Inside the Philly Style office, gray and red New Balance shoe boxes sit on the window sill across from the staff's desks.

The nonprofit organization pays for this with help of different foundations such as the Herrin Family Foundation, Lenfest Foundation, Flyers Charities and others throughout Philadelphia. The foundations change every year, and many of the high school teams are sponsored by individual corporations.

The biggest change in the program is not the number of kids participating, but the amount of students who are interested in running. More than 300 students are currently on Philly Style's waiting list.

"For us, the hardest part is keeping up with the demand because we are constantly being asked to bring in a new school," executive director Andy Kucer said. "We are trying to catch up to that because it is making a difference, and the schools are seeing the effects not just in the individual students, but in attendance and academics."

Most teams practice a minimum of three times per week and then run an extra workout on Saturdays. In a study conducted by Temple University in 2015, the average attendance is 80 percent on weekdays and 90 percent on weekends.

Running with the students are 323 volunteer mentors who attend each practice and race, spending six to 10 hours per week with the team. Another 250 volunteers help at events and races.

"It is mostly running along with the students, and after they finish, I'll go back and motivate the other students to finish their miles," said Perry Campana, a mentor at Prep Charter High School. "A lot of them were the shy type, like me, and now they are more vocal with other students."

Campana transformed from a shy student runner at Penn Charter to a current mentor at the same school. Philly Style helped Campana decide to major in athletic training at Temple University. He is one of many students who improved in academics while taking part.

According to a two-year study done by Temple and Drexel University from 2012-2013, 65 percent of the students maintained a high level of self-confidence. From the beginning of the program in March to the end in November, students increased their GPA by 41 percent.

For high school seniors, 91 percent graduated, and 90 percent were accepted by four-year colleges. A senior at Julia R. Masterman High School, Charles Chang ran in the program for seven years and is looking at universities to attend next year.

"I feel like my grades have improved since I've done Students Run; overall, I have become more confident," Chang said. "My dad said, 'If you can put yourself through a whole marathon, you should be able to make yourself study more.' "

Although many of the teams run throughout the city for practice, not every school shares the benefit. First Philadelphia Preparatory Charter senior Maura Dengel and her team run around the school for practices.

Since the school opened in 2002, FPPC's members have grown from seven to 15 this year. At 4-11, Dengel said running continues to improve her self-image.

"It has helped give me a lot of confidence in what I can physically do," Dengel said. "When people see how small I am, they want to run along with me thinking I will be slow, and it is a confidence booster when they have to really push to try and catch up."

Philly Style participates in a race every month and runs the Philadelphia Marathon in the fall and the Broad Street Run in the spring. The program is based around completing the race rather than finishing first.

Every runner who crosses the finish line Sunday receives a sweatshirt representing the accomplishment. It may simply be a piece of clothing, but for Student Runs Philly Style, it means more.

"It is really about the people who helped them get to the place where they are now," Kobylarz said. "It is not about running the race because that is what the medal is for. It is about the journey and what it has taken to get to this point."

On Twitter: @ConnorNJ4life