Maddie Schroeder has always enjoyed reading and writing poetry — but performing it in front of others?

Just the thought of it was nerve-racking.

Yet, rather than shying from her fear of public speaking, Schroeder not only overcame it but also won a statewide high-school competition in poetry reading.

Now, the 18-year-old senior at Columbus Alternative High School is gearing up to compete against 52 others in the national finals of Poetry Out Loud that begins today in Washington, D.C. She'll be up against the best from every U.S. state as well as D.C., Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

If she advances through the semifinal rounds, she will join eight other finalists to compete for a $20,000 grand prize on Wednesday.

Though reciting poetry in front of others still makes her nervous, the ability to share the work of poets she loves is what motivates her to take the stage.

“It’s still one of the most terrifying things I ever do and I still have not managed to relax whatsoever before the performances,” said Schroeder, who lives with her parents in the Clintonville neighborhood.

“It’s really the poetry. That is the one reason. I absolutely love it because I want to convey the poetry and what I get from reading the words to everyone else.

"The importance is to get the audience to understand what you feel about it.”

Poetry Out Loud, a youth poetry-recitation competition, was started in 2006 by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation in partnership with state agencies, including the Ohio Arts Council.

The program, which has grown in Ohio every year, boasted 9,000 students in 60 schools who participated statewide last year, said Chiquita Mullins Lee, the arts learning coordinator at the council.

The competition is intended to foster an appreciation for poetry while students learn valuable public speaking skills.

“I’ve seen students really grow personally in some tremendous ways. They’re able to increase their own self-confidence, they improve their English language-arts skills,” Mullins Lee said. “It’s a way of understanding how language can touch you and change your life and give you a whole new perspective.”

Schroeder, who is bound for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall, not only excels at science and math, but also maintains a love of the arts.

Though Schroeder said she has read and written poetry since second grade, her freshman English teacher, Jamie Foley, taught her how to explore the literature on a more academic level.

Foley has had students participate in Poetry Out Loud since its inception in 2006, the year Columbus Alternative student Jackson Hille won the national championship.

Each teacher can incorporate the program into their curriculum as he or she sees fit, Foley said.

“It’s fun and it gets kids involved in poetry and to discover authors they never would have studied in an English curriculum,” she said.

Schroeder first participated in Poetry Out Loud last year, advancing as far as the regional competition. This year, she advanced to the state finals, where she went up against 11 others in front of three judges, all of whom are acclaimed poets.

Students select poems to perform from an anthology provided by Poetry Out Loud. This year, Schroeder chose "The Gaffe" by C.K. Williams, "Snow Day" by Billy Collins and "I Find No Peace" by Thomas Wyatt.

For Schroeder, preparing for a performance not only requires rote memorization, but also the ability to understand what the poet is trying to communicate and in turn relate that to the audience.

Judges evaluate each performance on a variety of factors, including accuracy of the recitation, dramatic appropriateness and understanding of the words' meaning.

Those who witnessed Schroeder's performances praised her for her comprehension of the meaning of the poems and for her flawless recitations.

Mullins, who watched Schroeder's performance, said: “She was able to bring each word to life."

With her win in Ohio came a $300 prize, which Schroeder said will go toward her fund-

raising efforts for the 100-mile Pelotonia ride this summer.

Does she have expectations for herself in D.C.?

“I haven’t from the beginning,” she said, “because I was really set on conveying the message of the poetry above all else and if that doesn’t please the judges, that’s OK.”

Accompanying her to D.C. will be Foley, Mullins Lee, her grandparents and her parents, Melinda and Jonathan Schroeder.

“It’s just so exciting,” said Melinda Schroeder. “To have her go all the way has been pretty amazing.”