Heckiem Taylor didn't know his way around a kitchen — much less how to wield a sharp cooking knife — before he started spending his hours after school learning new skills.
Now he's surprising his family with the tips he's picked up.
"My favourite thing is to cut tomatoes. My dad knows I can do it!"
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Taylor, an eighth grade student at Carlton Village Public School, credits the skills he's learned to the Junior Chefs' Club, one part of the "Beyond 3:30" after-school program run by the Toronto District School Board.
The program began in 2009, and is designed for students between Grades 6 and 8. It's now in 18 schools across the city.
Between 3:30 and 6:30 p.m. every school day, students take part in different activities — ranging from a homework club to cooking and nutrition classes — along with an hour and a half of sports and games.
"Every step and every piece of confidence they build — we see these children blossom," said Catherine Parsonage, executive director of the Toronto Foundation for Student Success. The group works to address issues of hunger and healthcare for school-age children.
The TDSB was alerted to the dire situation for students in low income neighbourhoods through their 2006 Student Census.
The census showed big gaps between schools in low-income areas and more affluent schools in most categories beyond test scores, such as extracurricular programs, homework support, and physical health.
School administrators also worried that with more free time after school, students could go down the wrong path.
Parsonage said that while there are many extracurricular activities for older teens, those between 12 and 15 years old can be left behind.
"This is the mid-step between childhood and being a teenager. It's absolutely critical that we help guide their choices, provide them great role models so that they make good choices and productive choices in the future."
Finding their path
Organizers of Beyond 3:30 rely on staff and leaders in the program, who often become role models for students.
Sheldon Parkes, a site co-ordinator with Beyond 3:30, said he often sees students find their passion once they leave the confines of a classroom.
Parkes said some students are misunderstood, as "it might appear to others that they're not interested."
"But as they come every day and as they engage with each other and get involved in the program, you see that these interests become drawn out. And you really see the skills they do have."
For Parkes, it's rewarding to see program alumni grow and return to the program as volunteers to help younger kids.
"The kids in high school come back and you see the change. Sometimes it takes time, but you can definitely see how it positively impacts the kids' lives," Parkes said.
Kayanna Kong took quickly to learning new skills, particularly when it came to cooking lessons. Risotto has become her favourite dish to make.
"I never knew what it was until I came here," she said.
Kong added that learning how to cook has become a point of pride.
"I just like the process of [cooking]; it's very fun to me. You can stir, there are different foods and I can try other people's dishes."
Community support needed
The Ministry of Education's reports show that the education from Beyond 3:30 has had positive impacts in the classroom.
According to its 2011 evaluation, 70 per cent of the students involved in the program saw their grades improve since attending the homework club.
Principals and teachers at the schools taking part also said participating students showed more engagement and homework completion.
But funding the program is a challenge every year.
Parsonage said it takes over $1 million to run Beyond 3:30 annually, with half of the funding coming from the provincial government. The other half comes from the Toronto Foundation for Student Success, along with community support.
Staff from Toronto-based business Ace Bakery donated a cheque for $84,981.60 to TFSS last Wednesday, to continue funding Beyond 3:30 in 2017 and beyond.
TFSS executive director Parsonage said the long-term impacts the program has made on hundreds of children is worth the cost.
"That [students] would have never been confident enough, if they hadn't come to Beyond 3:30 — it makes me proud of all the people and leaders."