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Cluster Bees Propel 36 to Championship

Dorothy Rowley | 3/5/2014, 3 p.m.
Students from all over the District participated in a three-day citywide Spelling Bee cluster at the Capitol Hill Montessori School in Northeast on Feb. 27. Photo by Khalid Naji-Allah

When it comes to spelling bees, it can be a daunting task taking on words that, say are familiar but have foreign origins, or sound like others, yet have different meanings – and are spelled differently.

It can be just as nerve-wracking to know how to spell a word, but become jittery and misspell it after stepping to the podium.

“I’m just a little nervous,” said Sidnee Salter, a 7th-grader at Paul Public Charter School in Northwest, as she and her coach poured over a practice list. “The competition can be frightening, but my confidence is high.”

Sidnee, 12, counted among more than 100 students in grades 4-8 from public, charter, private, parochial and home schools around the District who participated in the 32nd annual Cluster Spelling Bees hosted Feb. 25-27 at Capitol Hill Montessori School in Northeast.

During each of the three days which included two sessions, 36 hopefuls – including 18 District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) students – advanced to the state contest. That contest, the Washington Informer Citywide Spelling Bee, takes place Saturday, March 22 at the NBC4 studios in the District. The winner heads to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, slated for May at the Gaylord Hotel and Resort in Oxon Hill, Md.

“We started registration back in August, and ended on Oct. 31,” said Sharon Holmes, DCPS’ reading intervention manager. “The cluster bees [this year] were composed of 67 schools and we took six winners from each of the six sessions for the state bee.”

During the clusters, student after student quickly aced words like “barley,” “bevel,” and “hamster,” or were stumped over those like “coquette and “cache,” and “chow” and “caio.”

But Olga Williams, who teaches at St. Augustine Catholic School in Northwest, held out hope as she and four of her younger students cheered the efforts three others classmates who took to the microphone.

When the session ended, with one of the students – 7th-grader Kidan Tesfumichael – advancing to the state championship, Williams and her team could hardly contain their excitement.

Williams, who teaches technology and serves as the school’s library specialist, said much of the credit for Kidan’s advancement was due to his participation in the school’s spelling club.

“Being in the spelling club as well as participation in the Catholic schools’ own spelling bees [have been] important for my students,” Williams, 57, said. “Wherever they go in the world, they will have to have a strong grasp and understanding of vocabulary words.”

Trayce Funn, program manager for Corporate Contributions at Washington Gas, agreed, noting that her company is a co-sponsor for the state competition.

“The clusters gave us an opportunity to offer support financially and to provide resources and volunteer services,” Funn said. “The spelling bee addresses our focus on education and Washington Gas is honored to support this community endeavor,” she said. “The best memory of the clusters is seeing the faces of the young people and knowing how much they have prepared themselves.”

Spelling-word pronouncer Elizabeth Primas, explained the rules and regulations to students prior to the start of each spelling session. She said that being in the bees is a great way for students to have fun while learning.

“Many of these students have a gift for spelling – while some people learn how to spell, some people just know how to spell,” Primas said. “They just hear the word and can spell it without much training . . . We have some students who kind of use their fingers to determine how many syllables are in a word.”

Eight-year-old Ephram Mersa who was one of three 2nd-graders who accompanied Williams as observers, seemed to agree.

At times, while some of the participants hesitated before spelling a word, Ephram could be seen quietly spelling the word to himself, or waving a high-five when a speller nailed it.When asked if he’d like to be among next year’s participants, Ephram nodded enthusiastically.

“Yes,” he said. “Because I like to read a lot. I like words – and I’m a good speller.”