Thirty six second-graders lined up in anticipation to participate in the Inaugural Westchester Spelling Bee on Thursday, March 28 at Westchester Lutheran School.
The students had been practicing for over a month for the competition, which aimed to promote a growth mindset and create a platform for local schools to collaborate, something that has been sorely lacking in the community, according to WISH mom and spelling bee co-organizer, Stephanie Rosen.
“I love that we came together as a community for the spelling bee. I got to know teachers, principals and parents from other schools. I’m very grateful to everyone who participated and helped with this vision I had,” said Rosen. “It made us a stronger community, and the kids were pretty amazed by what they can do.”
The idea for the spelling bee sprung out of Rosen’s work as a tutor. When she saw that her students were struggling with spelling because they rely on spell-check, she went to her daughter’s second-grade teacher to encourage including it in the students’ word work curriculum. Soon, little spelling challenges became part of classroom activities and the idea to contact other schools for an official Spelling Bee was born.
Rosen reached out to Westchester Lutheran School (WLS) and was able to secure the help of Principal Emily Ingistov, who offered to host the event, as well as WLS parent, Lory Sarlo who came on board as the co-chair. Sarlo, who is also a member of the LAX Coastal Education Foundation, brought the idea to the board, which was eager to support the new event and encourages people to reach out with new ideas and partnership opportunities. The foundation agreed to sponsor dictionaries for all the participants, as well as prizes for the winners.
“We were so happy to host the first community spelling bee at Westchester Lutheran School. I thought it was a wonderful event giving children in our community an opportunity to learn, compete and build upon their spelling skills together,” said Ingistov. “And if you didn’t know how to spell ‘hippopotamus,’ you’re not alone. With a growth mindset, we can all learn how to spell that word.”
When they heard about the event, Open Magnet Charter and Paseo del Rey Elementary School quickly jumped on board to participate. A few schools weren’t able to attend this year due to scheduling, but were interested in competing next year.
Students were given a list of 100 words to practice for the spelling bee. Some teachers made practicing part of a mandatory homework assignment, while other schools made it optional, with students volunteering to give up their lunch breaks to study and compete in practice rounds.
When it came time for the competition at Westchester Lutheran, students were called up on stage one at a time and given words by moderator Dr. Darin Earley, head of the LMU Family of Schools. During the first two rounds of the bee, students were asked to spell words from their practice list.
As the third round began, more than 50% of the students remained, bravely prepared to spell words they hadn’t practiced in front of a packed crowd. Heading up to the podium in rapid succession, students were faced with words like “illustration,” “cinnamon,” “gymnastics” and “memorization,” leaving audience members on the edge of their seats, as students carefully articulated the words presented to them. Silent applause met the students who made it to the next round, and a few tears were shed by those disappointed they misspelled their word by a letter or two.
“I was thrilled to see these kids have the courage to get up in front of a group of strangers and be willing to take a risk and fail,” said Rosen. “For these kids at 8-years-old to be able to do what they did was spectacular.”
In the end, three students from Open Magnet Charter School swept the competition, taking first, second and third place. The winning students were presented with gift cards and all of the students who participated received gift bags.
“I’m feeling proud of myself and I’m feeling great,” said first place winner Aayansh Sharma. “It was hard studying, but I made it through.”
Added his mother Manju Sharma, “Thank you so much to all the organizers who put in the effort and the teachers who spent extra time with the kids to practice. I’m proud of all the kids who participated and made it through. I think that these collaborative efforts from different schools should happen more often. It brings all of us together and brings the opportunity to have the kids’ confidence boosted.”
With the success of the inaugural spelling bee, organizers are hoping to hold another event next year, with even more schools participating. The ed foundation is also looking into the feasibility of an area-wide science fair to promote even more school collaboration.
“I was very proud of every child that got up there. They were all winners,” said Rosen. “They got a chance to stretch their boundaries and that’s what it was all about—a bigger sense of what they can do and showing them how incredible they are. As a parent and an educator, it really filled my heart to see these kids be their best selves and show up and try.”