What began as a summer program in 2010 has become an after-school program at four Champaign schools and continues to grow.
CHAMPAIGN — In the cafeteria of Franklin Middle School, just before 5 p.m., the room buzzed as more than 40 middle school students tried new skills.
Several worked with a volunteer to sew fleece into pillows and bags, by machine and by hand.
Others used spinach, plain yogurt and Ricotta cheese to make a simple Indian recipe for Ricotta-filled roti bread.
Some students didn't exactly like the taste of the finished bread, which was like a warm, cheesy spinach pancake. But it warranted at least one "This is delicious."
The students were participating in Tap In Leadership Academy, an after-school program located at several Champaign schools that provides academic support and other opportunities for students.
Tap In began as a summer program for Champaign County students in 2010, at the McKinley Foundation in Champaign.
But with grant funding and in-kind donations from the school district, it has become an after-school program at four Champaign schools and continues to grow.
Tap In Leadership Academy is hosting an open house at its new office at 402 N. Randolph St., C.
It's being called a Gathering of Gratitude and is scheduled from 6 to 9 p.m. Nov. 15. Please RSVP to the event by Friday by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org .
Tap In operates with funding from a 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant and has programs at Edison, Jefferson and Franklin Middle Schools and Centennial High School. The different programs meet various days and for different time ranges, and feature a variety of enrichment programming, based on the needs and interests of the students involved.
Executive Director Sally Carter, who also founded Tap In, said it takes an innovative approach to providing enrichment and support for all kinds of kids: those who are minorities and those who aren't, those who come from low-income households and those who don't, kids who are doing well in school and those who aren't. It also supports their families.
Carter said her family is a two-parent household, and both she and her husband have college degrees. Yet, they still wouldn't be able to afford some private lessons and activities they want for their children, Carter said. So, she created the program to offer the kinds of things offered at private institutions.
The programs all include academic help for students and also focus on teaching them about different cultures (which is why Franklin students were cooking an Indian recipe Wednesday).
"We've begun to change the face of after-school programs," Carter said. "We wanted it to feel welcoming for all kids (and) make sure all kids have an opportunity to receive quality programming and quality enrichment."
The program calls its students scholars, said program director Cornicha West, because it recognizes their potential, and believes they deserve that title before graduating from college or starting in their careers.
"We want to pull that out of them now," she said.
Carter said she sees the program as an investment in the community.
"If we're talking about community investment, we have to begin looking at the middle," she said, referring to those who are doing well but could use some extra support. "If we begin to invest in our community from that angle, you get a greater return on your investment."
She said she believes such a model will help kids go to college, graduate and become successful, and then return and reinvest in their community.
Tap In also incorporates volunteers and staff members of various ages, to create a multigenerational learning experience for those involved.
The program's scholars work regularly with University of Illinois students who serve as academic tutors and mentors, as well as older volunteers.
The program also has rich partnerships with many UI departments, Carter said.
"Our list of partners at the university is really extensive," Carter said, adding that it includes the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, the College of Business, the College of Engineering and the mathematics department.
The program also has a strong partnership with the Champaign schools, which is providing it office space in its former curriculum center, where the open house is scheduled next week.
"The community needs to know that the Unit 4 school district does support the community and does listen to the community's needs," Carter said, adding that the district supports Tap In any way it can.
Tap In's presence in the schools since receiving the 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant in 2011 has allowed it to engage students who might not necessarily be involved in other extracurriculars.
"Us being in the building after school provided a separate space for them," Carter said, adding that some attendees now enjoy school more and are more involved in school activities.
The program has also expanded to look at how families are and can be involved. It provides monthly workshops for parents, on topics from financial literacy to what Carter calls "pampering sessions" to give them a chance to blow off some stress.
Carter said the model has received national attention. She gave a presentation on it at a national Department of Education conference last summer, and other major metropolitan areas have expressed an interest in its model.
"People are so receptive," Carter said, and other schools and universities are starting to use the Tap In model, as well.
"We didn't step out to be an after-school movement, but that's what has happened," Carter said.
Jamie Unzicker Stevens, whose seventh-grade son attends Tap In at Jefferson Middle School, said her family is new to the school district this year.
She also has two jobs and goes to school part-time. Before her son, Isaac, started going to Tap In, Unzicker Stevens said she found she was having trouble finding enough time to help him with homework.
Then, he started attending Tap In, which provided him one-on-one help with his homework.
"He comes home and has all of his homework done for the day now," she said.
He also said the program helped him feel welcome in a new school.
"I really noticed a change in him when he started going there," Unzicker Stevens said, adding that it has boosted his confidence, especially when it comes to his school work. He's also more independent, she said.
"They made me feel welcome," Isaac Stevens said. "They made me independent."
He also likes the enrichment activities at Tap In, he said, and "now I get A's and B's in school."
Carter said she wants to get more community members and businesses involved in Tap In. Carter said she's also looking into more corporate sponsorships for the program. She wanted the program to become more established before approaching community members for their support. She also continues to write grants to support the program, as well.
Carter is also planning more ways to raise money, especially to buy the program a van. Tap In is also collecting professional clothing to give to Tap In parents during a program this spring. Donations can be taken to Tap In's office on North Randolph Street in Champaign.
"This is a community program," Carter said. "We want to make sure we stick around and we're able to serve."