LEWISTON — Sixteen-year-old Jessica Denis sat forward and began talking faster.
“I’ve only been out of Maine twice in my life,” she said, dismissing her two Boston trips with a swipe in the air. “I want to get out there and explore.”
First stop: Kansas City, Mo.
In the city’s 18,000-seat Kemper Arena, Denis hopes to test herself.
Along with 17 other students from Lewiston Regional Technical Center — gold medalists in Maine’s SkillsUSA competition — Denis will compete this June for more medals and scholarship money. She’ll build a cabinet. Others will bake, fix an engine or frame a house.
And they won’t be alone among LRTC students.
Teens from two other groups at the Lewiston school, the Distributive Education Club of America and the Future Business Leaders of America, also are planning trips to national contests. DECA will send 18 state winners from Lewiston to Louisville, Ky. The FBLA will send six local students to the nationals in Nashville, Tenn.
In each case, teens will test themselves against the best technical students in the country.
“I want to know how good I can do,” Denis said.
Rob Callahan, director of the Lewiston Regional Technical Center, is already pleased.
In September, he kicked off the school year by gathering all 1,400 of the center’s students in the Lewiston High gymnasium.
It was the first time that all of the students from the center’s six high schools — Lewiston, Lisbon, Leavitt, Edward Little, Oak Hill and Poland — were in one place.
Callahan and his staff dared the kids to improve.
“We threw down the gauntlet,” said the director, who is in his second year in Lewiston.
Too little had been asked of the students. Rather than turning out kids who are only proficient, why not see if they could lift their skills to a professional level, he figured.
“We needed to set the bar high and see if they responded,” he said.
Enrollment in courses that accrue college credits climbed. And work in groups such as SkillsUSA grew exponentially.
During the past school year, about 30 kids were actively involved in competitions. This year, that number ballooned to more than 240. About half participated in state competitions.
It’s extraordinary because the competition is purely voluntary, Callahan said. Excelling requires teens to use off-hours to build their skills.
“They come in early, after school and on weekends,” he said.
Alex Crockett, an 18-year-old senior, said he spent countless hours preparing his gold medal speech for a public speaking contest. Committing it to memory took brain-numbing memorization, he said.
Jessica Staples, a criminal justice student from Edward Little, had to learn and memorize police procedure to investigate a skills-contest crime.
Like Denis, both Crockett and Staples earned gold medals and a trip to nationals.
For each, the trip represents a higher level of respect for their talents.
Academics get honor rolls and commencement speeches. Music kids get camps and stages. Athletes get newspaper stories.
“I can’t do sports,” Denis said. “They’re after school and I have to work.”
But she can interpret complicated plans and build furniture. Her success at the state level has already given her enough confidence in her skills to contemplate changing the modest future she once imagined.
She had planned to go straight to work when she graduates next year.
But she has won several thousand dollars in scholarship money, with more to come if she does well in Kansas City.
“I’m thinking about college,” she said, grinning with pride.
What she might study or where is still uncertain. For now, she is happy to plan for the long bus trip to Kansas City and the unknowns that follow.
“You have to take every chance you get to see the world,” she said.