School children in the District of Columbia will be competing in the Spelling Bee and seeking the bragging rights that come with it this Sat., March 10.
As the young wordsmiths try to confound their opponents with the etymological depth of their knowledge, the Bee's sponsor, The Washington Informer and its supporters are celebrating its 30th birthday.
"It's unbelievable," said Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes. "When the idea was introduced to my father, I just didn't think the engagement would be so long. The demand by District of Columbia Public School students over the years has been the hook for us. We overcame economic issues and continued the Bee because the students wanted it."
Years ago, The Washington Daily News sponsored the local Spelling Bee. When The Washington Star purchased the Daily News, it ceased sponsorship of the Bee. And for 17 years, Rolark Barnes said, the District's public, private and parochial schoolchildren were not able to participate in the national competition because there was no sponsoring newspaper.
That's when her father stepped in.
As the publisher of a weekly newspaper which served more than 25,000 readers in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia, Informer Founder Dr. Calvin Rolark volunteered his publication as a sponsor. He brought in his daughter to assist in coordinating the District's first Spelling Bee with the late Mary E. White, supervising director of the D.C. Public Schools Division of Instructional Services, Department of English and other D.C. Public Schools officials.
Rolark threatened to go to court for the right to sponsor the Spelling Bee when Scripps-Howard balked on allowing him to do so, citing the fact that the sponsoring newspaper was a weekly not a daily.
The newspaper began sponsoring the competition during the 1981-82 school year.
"It's been the students who've been the driving force," said Rolark Barnes. "I have most enjoyed the competition and the camaraderie. They practice at schools together, study alone and at the end, the students end up rooting for each other. It's amazing that there is such an appreciation for the hard work."
"It has always proven to be an awesome experience which is what my father always wanted."
Each year, more than 4,000 students enrolled in nearly 200 D.C. Public Schools and the non-affiliated private schools participate in the Spelling Bee. For the past 29 years, the City-Wide Spelling Bee has been held at the studios of WRC-TV Channel 4, where it is taped and later aired for general viewership.
Students from Howard University Middle School have won the last two competitions and the Spelling Bee instructor said her charges are in the midst of intense preparation to make it a three-peat.
The District's competition will be taped at the NBC 4 studios on Saturday and will air on Easter Sunday, April 8 at 2 p.m.
The winner goes to the national Spelling Bee which is held here in the city every year, to compete against students from around the United States, its territories, and some foreign countries, including Jamaica.
In 1998, 12-year-old Jamaican competitor Jodi Ann Maxwell won the Spelling Bee, becoming the first foreigner and black to win the prestigious event. She returned to Jamaica a national heroine and she excited the national passions of Jamaicans across the Diaspora.
Rolark Barnes said now that the city has so many educational options for its children, it's fun to watch public school, private school, charter school, independent and home-schooled children jostle for supremacy.
"We didn't participate for 17 years and a lot happened in that time. The makeup of the student population changed," she said.
The national Spelling Bee has never had a large number of African-American finalists and Rolark Barnes said she is pleased to have been able to add to the number of black children who participate over the years.
"It would have been nice to have a national winner [from the District] but the overall experience was more important. Having the children come here and enjoy an all-expense paid week at a hotel and visit tourist attractions, that was important to my father," she said.
This year's Spelling Bee sponsors, who have contributed cash and prizes are: NBC4; DCPS; McDonald's; the Washington Nationals; Pepco; the Foundation for the Advancement of Music and Education, Inc (FAME); Champion Trophies; Jack H. Olender & Associates; Microsoft; Nielsen; Giant; Young Designs; Coca-Cola; McMillon Communications and Southwest Airlines