URBANA — At Urbana Middle School's after-school program, students recently spent the afternoon practicing American Sign Language, creating art and learning about giving speeches.
Those programs are just a few offered at SPLASH — Students Playing and Learning After School Hours — which also provides students homework help and the chance to review what they learned that day in class.
That all happens before they gather in the school's cafeteria for a light supper.
The Urbana school and park districts partner on the program, which began in 2005. It's serving about 240 students this session, although different classes are offered on different days.
The program is in the final year of being funded by a federal grant and is operating with half the original grant amount, said Linda Gibbens, the school district's director of grant-based programs.
This summer, the city of Urbana awarded the program a $21,700 grant through its annual Consolidated Social Service Funding.
The program continues to look for community partnerships, Gibbens said, as next year, it will be without the federal grant.
"We are really looking for partners and ways to sustain this program," she said.
Park district Executive Director Vicki Mayes said the city's grant was especially useful to the program.
"(It) was important because it allowed us to continue the program for another year while the ... park district and the school district find a way to sustain the program over a long period of time," she said.
The city's grant funding is meant to support local nonprofits that provide social services to Urbana residents, said Jenell Hardy, the city's grants coordinator.
Money in that fund comes from Urbana and Cunningham Township general funds, as well as City of Urbana Community Development Block Grant funds.
Hardy said the city council this year created guiding principles for what to do with the grant money, and one of those was to focus on programs that were specifically for youth.
The Urbana school district and park districts partner on the program with the help of other community partners and volunteers. It started with a federal grant called a 21st Century Community Learning Centers Grant. Several other schools in Urbana have programs paid for by this kind of grant, as well.
The school and park districts also partner with various University of Illinois departments, the Urbana Rotary and community volunteers for the SPLASH program.
Gibbens said the program gives students the opportunity to explore interests and opportunities they might not otherwise be exposed to.
School district staff members provide students academic support and enrichment, and Mayes said park district employees offer sessions that involve things like sports and athletic activities, environmental education and getting students out into the community to learn more about it.
Other classes have students about science, math, engineering and technology, Gibbens said. The program does a musical, which often leads students to participate in drama in high school.
"It's great to have kids learn about new things," she said.
Mayes said SPLASH offers a wide variety of sessions that appeal to students and can react to their preferences from session to session. Because it's at the middle school, facilities allow for students to do things like learn cooking, work on computers or create art.
The program doesn't require students to leave and come back to school, which is useful for parents who work or have other after-school demands.
"It's a really important program to the community as a whole," Mayes said.
Parents also like it because it gives their children structured activities after school. Those who attend the homework lab usually finish their homework before leaving school, Gibbens said.
"Parents like knowing their children are in a safe, well-supervised learning environment," she said.
Urbana Middle School Principal Scott Woods said students like the program, too.
"(They) love being able to extend their school day in a fun, educational way with our staff and community members," Woods said.