Champions at Work: I’m Ready!

Skills USA group
July 24, 2019

The students and their advisors take a break from competing to enjoy some of the sites in Louisville, KY. 

After months of preparation and winning gold at the state level, six SJA students traveled to Louisville, Kentucky last month for the SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference. The five-day event brought 6,500 career and technical students together to compete in 103 different trade, technical, and leadership events. 


SJA students attending were Vermont state gold-medal winners Emma Smith ’19 in Commercial Baking, Becca Houde ’19 in Restaurant Services, Katelyn Molleur ’19 in Culinary Arts, Alexis Collins ’19 in Prepared Speech, and Dylan Villeneuve ’20 and Shawn Guckin ’19 in Teamworks.


Senior Emma Smith followed the lead of the many successful SJA students before her and became SJA’s 11th national medalist in Commercial Baking in the last 15 years. During that span instructor Paula Bystrzycki (Chef B) has also had 15 state gold medalists, 12 state silver medalists, and two state bronze medalists. Chef B says that “Emma showed a great deal of determination as she finished all of her product with only minutes to spare. As her advisor, I could not be more proud of how she never gave up on her way to winning the silver medal.”


During the Commercial Baking competition contestants were allotted 7 hours and 15 minutes (with a mandatory 30-minute lunch break) to produce items from seven categories: one decorated cake, wheat bread in three shapes, 24 eclairs and cream puffs, 36 large chocolate chip cookies, 24 danish in 3 shapes, 18 large pepper and cheese scones, and six apple galettes. 


Katelyn Molleur participated in the Culinary Arts competition. The SkillsUSA website ( says that the Culinary Arts “competition will encompass both hot and cold food preparation and presentation. Contestants will demonstrate their knowledge and skills through the production of a four-course menu in a full-day competition. The contestants are evaluated on organization, knife skills, cooking techniques, creative presentation, sanitation and food safety techniques, and above all, the quality and flavor of their prepared items. The high school competitors will work from one menu to demonstrate fundamental cooking techniques.” 


While Emma and Katelyn focused on preparation in the kitchen, senior Becca Houde worked in the “front of the house” where staff typically interact with diners. The competition included every aspect of service from table set up (including folding the napkins in several different ways) to taking orders to serving the meals.  Each contestant was also required to handle table-side service where they made either guacamole or Caesar salad. They were judged on correct ingredients used, sanitation, the taste of the finished product, and any waste of ingredients.  Personal appearance, table-side manner, professionalism, ease with guests, courtesy, general knowledge, and technical and verbal skills were also part of the competition.


Advisor Sue Libbey says of Becca, “Working with Becca was such a pleasure. Seeing the growth in her confidence was great to see. She worked very hard on learning all of the details in restaurant service. I’m very proud of her performance.”


This year marked the third trip to nationals for senior Alexis Collins, who competed in Prepared Speech. The competition requires a five- to seven-minute speech on a topic selected by SkillsUSA. Each competitor was evaluated on their ability to present their thoughts relating to the topic, voice, mechanics, and platform deportment.  This year’s topic was “Champions at Work: I’m Ready!” 


Participating in Skills has been an essential part of Alexis’ life for the last three years, and she credits the program with increasing her confidence and professionalism: “The atmosphere of Skills is all about hard work and dedication and we are all striving for the same goals.”


Alexis’ advisor Jennifer McGarvin applauds Alexis’ effort to search out opportunities to improve her leadership and organizational skills. She gave a series of Chapel Talks, served as the MC at the annual Calcutta fundraiser, and spoke on behalf of several groups with which she has a personal connection. 


Dylan Villeneuve ’20 and Shawn Guckin ’19 participated in one of the rare events in which the contestants did not compete as individuals. In Teamworks, teams of four students were required to build a construction project that demonstrated their ability to work together as a team. Each member of the group specialized in one of the four disciplines; plumbing, carpentry, electricity, and masonry. Dylan and Shawn were paired with two students from the Stafford Technical Center in Rutland. 


The team received their set of blueprints on the first day and according to advisor Jeremy Roberts, “were up until 11:30 that night preparing a timeline for completion of each aspect of the construction.”


The team then spent the next two days completing the project. Judging was on the team’s presentation skills, ability to construct the project per “competition specified” building codes, job site safety and cleanliness, organized and correct ordering of materials from the competition material depot, proper use and accountability of tools and equipment, and the rate of completion of the project. 


Director of  Career and Technical Education (CTE) Pat Guckin says, “SkillsUSA is a great competition to assess how the Academy’s CTE students match up against the rest of the nation. Our students perform like champions when they compete.  Emma Smith placed second in the nation in Commercial Baking. That is a reflection of the exemplary students we have and how Chef Bystrzycki is one of the best instructors in SkillsUSA.  All our students performed well in Louisville. I am so proud that they are all career and college ready as they move on with their successful lives.”


Headmaster Tom Lovett says, “Just like the title of Alexis’ speech, every one of these competitors can say ‘Champions at Work: I’m ready!’ I echo Pat Guckin’s praise for these students and their teachers.  They exemplify the best in our graduates: talented young people who put in the extra time and effort to become expert in their fields.  I am sure this is not the last time we will hear of these competitors and their accomplishments.  Congratulations to all involved in these successful performances on a national stage!”


LEARN MORE about our CTE program.

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