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Area's top vocational students put skills to test in McKeesport

| Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013, 4:42 a.m.
Culinary competitors, from left, West Mifflin Area and Steel Center senior Alison Zurawski, Indiana County Technology Center senior Zack Riley and McKeesport Area junior Dazhia Clark share a stove during Monday's Skills USA competition. Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Cornell senior Robert Gilligan, who attends the Parkway West Career and Technology Center, takes measurements during a collision repair competition during Monday's Skills USA event hosted by McKeesport Area School District. Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
McKeesport Area senior Tanya Wertz applies makeup to classmate Destiny Bezts during a cosmetology competition in Monday's Skills USA event. Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Steel Center cosmetology students, from left, Thomas Jefferson senior Gabby Caruso and Baldwin senior Chelsea Pilarski style hair on mannequin heads during Monday's Skills USA competition. Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News

McKeesport Area School District invited students from a multi-county region to put their vocational and technical skills to the test on Monday.

Hosting the SkillsUSA leadership and skill competition for Pennsylvania's Region 8, McKeesport Area Career and Technology Center opened its classroom to students from Steel Center, Forbes, Eastern Westmoreland, Northern Westmoreland, Parkway West, AW Beattie, Beaver, Greater Johnstown and Indiana County vocational programs.

“It's been 10 years since we last hosted this competition,” McKeesport Area CTC director Patty Scales said. “I remember that snowy January day very well, and we're thankful that the weather cooperated this year.”

With Monday being an off day for most McKeesport Area students, many teachers were available to volunteer at more than 30 stations organized by cosmetology teacher Monica Kitta and building/construction teacher Mike Locke. Events include activities from graphic design work to culinary arts to health care to firefighting.

“They've done a super job at coordinating this with the high school administration and staff,” Scales said. “There's a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes into this competition.”

Hosting SkillsUSA wouldn't be possible without support from district staff and community volunteers, Kitta said.

“We have business professionals here as judges, and shows how much community support we have,” she said. “They're always here for us, and events like this really illustrate that.”

Renee Lucanish of Dravosburg works in the culinary field, and she observed students preparing meals in the Tiger Inn kitchen.

“They're doing a great job,” Lucanish said. “Some of them are so on-task, and you can tell they really want to cook.”

Roger Tachoir, who owns Tachoir Auto Body in Clairton, observed the collision repair competition and simply said, “I wish I could hire one or two of these guys.”

School director Joe Lopretto, a lieutenant with McKeesport Police Department, conducted the criminal justice competition.

“We don't know the students' names or where they're from,” Lopretto said. “We're judging them on the techniques they use in everything we've gone over. They're all doing very well.”

The competition was a positive experience for judges and students.

“We're all competing against each other, but we're all friendly,” said Derry Area senior Megan Fink, who attends the Eastern Westmoreland Career and Technology Center.

Shamar Burkes, a Shaler Area junior who attends AW Beattie, said students from every school have been courteous while maintaining their competitive edge.

“Everyone is nice,” he said. “We just met, but we're all talking like we've known each other our whole lives.”

Students said their new friendships are based on common interests as they pursue career-based education.

SkillsUSA is the former Vocational Industrial Clubs of America. The organization was formed in 1965 by students and teachers who saw a need for leadership training as it applied to vocational education.

First-place winners of Monday's event advance to state competitions scheduled for April 3-5 in Hershey and Lebanon. Winners in that event move on to the national competition set for June 24-28 in Kansas City.

Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1956, or