PROVIDENCE — In the state of Rhode Island, Catholic schools have long demonstrated their excellence through a range of healthy competitions with other local schools, most prominently in the area of athletics. However, one has to look no further than ESPN to learn that sports aren’t the only playing field where talented young students can demonstrate their competitive side.
Every year, during the last week of May, ESPN turns its primetime coverage to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, where several hundred elementary and middle school students from around the country compete for the title of number one speller.
Before they make it to the national stage, these students must first go through several rounds of qualifying bees, including state and regional competitions. For Catholic school students in Rhode Island, this year’s regional qualifier takes place next Wednesday, Feb. 3, when two students from each school in the diocese will compete against others to earn the title of district champion and advance to the state bee.
“I think it’s a healthy competition. It gives them an opportunity to shine,” said Lisa Lepore, principal of St. Mary School, Cranston, and longtime coordinator of the diocesan bee.
The competition begins in the classroom, where language arts teachers quiz students from pre-determined lists of words. Two winners from each grade level advance to the school bee, where, in most schools, they compete against students in grades 4 through 8. According to Nancy Oliveira, eighth grade teacher and school bee coordinator at St. Peter Tri-Parish School, Warwick, the students apply themselves but maintain a good attitude toward their teammates.
“I think they all enjoy the classroom competition. They all pull for each other,” she said. “The contestants try their hardest. It’s a really positive atmosphere.”
After the school bee comes the diocesan bee, also called the regional, and then the state bee, where the words get tougher and the competition steeper. In each case, two students, a winner and a runner-up, have the opportunity to advance. For most students, a chance to compete at the state bee is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For others, hours of studying and preparation bring them back year after year.
“It’s a lot more competitive, there are a lot of students who’ve been there several times,” said Joan Sickinger, principal at St. Peter School, about the state bee.
Last year’s regional champion, Marissa Birmingham, was a seventh-grader at St. Peter when she represented the diocese in the state bee. An avid reader who hopes to study psychology and poetry, she said her background in words most likely gave her an advantage over the competition at the school and regional levels.
“I was always reading a lot, even when I was young, so I think that the early exposure to all those words may have helped me comprehend the words a little bit more,” she said.
To prepare, Birmingham studied the lists of words her teachers gave her after she advanced from the school bee. According to Lepore, this kind of preparation on a student’s own time is common among higher level competitors, who often excel across many subjects in the classroom.
“I’ve seen some really bright kids win the spelling bee,” she said. “You put the time in and that’s the reward.”
Still, as with any competition, there is an element of chance. Though the spelling bee’s pronouncers read from a list loosely organized from easiest to most difficult, a student’s seat in the lineup can determine the difference between a familiar verb and an unpronounceable noun. And, unfortunately for the competitors, one wrong letter spells elimination, a moment that Lepore says is her least favorite part of the bee.
“You have to have the confidence,” she said, adding that taking part in the bee can help prepare students for the sometimes competitive academic atmosphere of high school.
Birmingham can’t remember the word that won her the diocesan bee, but she still knows the one she missed at the state level: hawthorn, which she spelled Hawthorne, like the author, instead of hawthorn, like the plant. Still, she said the experience was a positive one, and looks forward to getting another chance at this year’s regional bee, where she’ll represent St. Peter as school runner-up. She’ll be spelling alongside St. Peter champion Hannah DeFeo, a fifth grade aspiring writer who will likely be one of the bee’s younger competitors.
Over the next week, the school representatives will put in extra study time at home, asking parents and siblings to quiz them on words they may never use in regular conversation. All of the students will receive certificates and support from classmates from their participation, but only two can advance to the state bee.
For Lepore, the experience can be nerve-wracking but rewarding, watching dozens of young spellers during their chance to shine. “I give them all the tools, a little bit of studying, a little bit of luck,” she said. After that, it’s up to the students, with maybe a little help from a prayer or two along the way.