Aiming for the last word

Student spellers’ road to Washington starts at school bee
Friday, January 9, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:10 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A silence falls over the gymnasium filled with students seated on the carpeted floor at Midway Heights Elementary School. The first contestant steps up to the microphone. The word is “bond,” and the speller slowly delivers the letters one by one.

“That is correct,” said Wende Geitz, the media specialist and spelling bee coordinator at Midway Heights.

Relief and whispers pass through the audience of students, teachers and parents. The 2004 Midway Heights Elementary School Spelling Bee has begun.

Spelling bees like this one take place across the country almost year-round and lead to the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee televised on ESPN in Washington, D.C., from June 1-3.

The first step for students in Columbia is to win the spelling bee at their individual elementary schools. The winner from each school will then advance to the regional bee in March, which takes place in St. Louis and is sponsored by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

According to Scripps Howard, the spelling bee’s purpose is more than just a competition. The bee helps students increase their vocabularies, improve spelling and develop correct English usage.

Linda Klopfenstein, principal at Midway Heights, sees the spelling bee as a different sort of educational tool.

“The spelling bee allows kids that have an aptitude for spelling to challenge themselves,” Klopfenstein said. “It’s another way to practice spelling and an opportunity to go above and beyond.”

There are more than 60,000 students from across Missouri that participate in the regional competition. Last year, fifth-grader Britney Johnson was the winner from Midway Heights and made it through the first round at the regional bee in St. Louis. This year fourth-grader Eric Penton, who won by spelling the word “labyrinth” in the 19th round, will advance.

“He’s a good student,” Eric’s mother, Kim Penton, said. “He likes to read, which probably helps with his spelling.”

For Eric and the rest of his schoolmates, the spelling bee began in October.

“Between October and January we hold five or six practices before school,” Geitz said. “We go over the rules, hold mock spelling bees and then have a final practice. For $1.50 the students can purchase a spelling bee book that they can use to practice from at home.”

This year is the 77th for the national bee. Three winners have come from Missouri, the latest being George Abraham Thampy in 2000. Thampy, from Maryland Heights, made it through 15 rounds and won by correctly spelling “demarche.”

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