Pennsylvania first lady Susan Corbett continued her statewide initiative to improve high school graduation rates during a recent visit to the Carbon County SHINE (Schools and Homes in Education) Career Academy.

The SHINE afterschool program was started in Carbon County in 2002 to help area elementary school students excel in school and have a positive impact on the community. Hundreds of students are served each year in the SHINE afterschool program, which takes place in six SHINE centers throughout Carbon and Schuylkill counties.

The program has now expanded to serve middle school students through the SHINE Career Academy, which focuses on science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics (STEAM) through hands-on projects at the Carbon Career & Technical Institute (CCTI) in Jim Thorpe.

The academy currently serves 62 middle school students from each of the five Carbon County school districts.

While on tour, Corbett talked to students and faculty members taking part in the academy. The students are currently working in groups to design and build a hovercraft, utilizing skills such as math and critical thinking and learning how to accurately measure and cut raw materials. Students designing the hover crafts are utilizing the AutoCAD drafting program.

"It sounds like you're doing a lot of hard work, and having fun doing it," said Corbett to a group of middle school students as they carefully measured a piece of wood, demonstrating the motto "measure twice, cut once."

"I'm very impressed with the kids. They are engaging with their instructors," she said after the tour, noting that her Opening Doors education initiative focuses on keeping middle school students engaged and interested in their education. Her initiative also aims to identify middle school students who are likely to drop out of high school and provide them with guidance and support to stay in school.

She added that middle school is a critical time for many students: It's a time when students either enjoy school or become uninterested in their education. For the students who lose interest, it's important to interview quickly. One in five students in Pennsylvania will not graduate from high school.

"If you can provide these at-risk kids with an appropriate intervention, they have an 80 percent chance of staying on track and graduating. If you do nothing, they have a 20 percent chance of staying on track," she said.

While the SHINE Career Academy accommodates all students who have an interest in science, technology, engineering, art or math, not just those in danger of failing academically, Corbett noted that the academy is a good example of getting kids actively involved and excited about learning and increasing their chances of graduating high school on time.

"The whole idea is to find ways to keep kids interested in their education, and keep them on track. I think this is an amazing example of how to keep kids on track," she said of the program, noting that CCTI is an ideal place to encourage hands-on projects and learning because of its advanced technology and technical tools.

"It's a very clever way to utilize the community's resources."

The SHINE afterschool program and middle school academy are initiatives of Lehigh Carbon Community College (LCCC). Both programs are partially funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Education's 21st Century Learning Center and a Department of Transportation grant.

SHINE Career Academy coordinator Rachel Strucko noted that the program has been successful with students in part because of its hands-on activities and group projects.

"From the moment they come in the building until they moment they leave, they are learning by doing. Hands-on learning is a very successful method in education," said Strucko. "We're extremely pleased that Mrs. Corbett would take the time to tour our program."