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No spelling bee for Salt Lake County?

Published January 10, 2014 3:15 pm

Schools • No sponsor has stepped forward, so kids may lose their chance to compete in regional, national contests.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It's a scene that normally plays out in classrooms across Utah this time of year: One-by-one, kids nervously rise to their feet and spell words correctly and incorrectly, until one perfect speller remains, poised to advance to the next level of competition.

This year, however, Salt Lake County spellers may be out of the running before they've even started.

So far, no business or individual has stepped forward to sponsor a Salt Lake County spelling bee. That leaves Salt Lake County kids without a regional spelling bee and without the ability to compete in the 2014 Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Without a sponsor, individual schools may still hold contests if they wish, but there's no one to pay for the next level of competition or for a winner to travel to the national spelling bee in Washington, D.C. And schools can't officially enroll or access support materials provided by the national organization.

As a result, some Salt Lake County schools have chosen to forgo spelling bees altogether this year.

"One of the attractions for students is always the opportunity to advance to a higher level of competition," said Marilyn Taft, a fifth-grade teacher at Salt Lake City's Hawthorne Elementary who usually coordinates the school's spelling bee. "Really, to adequately prepare for the spelling bee requires a huge investment of time and effort and it doesn't seem to me to be perhaps as worthwhile of an activity if you can't move beyond your own school."

Last year, Utah's Vismaya Kharkar, a 14-year-old from Bountiful, made it to the final five of the National Spelling Bee.

Across the rest of the Salt Lake City School District, some schools have chosen to hold their own bees and others are also skipping them, said Jason Olsen, district spokesman.

In the Murray District, the PTA has stepped in, offering to help schools hold bees as well as a district-wide bee.

McMillan Elementary PTA President Becca Westenskow and her husband put together a list of study words for each grade when they heard schools wouldn't be able to access the official study materials without a sponsor.

Westenskow said she felt it was important to give kids an opportunity to participate even though they can't advance.

"I think having a place for students to achieve academically is critical," said Westenskow, who has a third-grader, seventh-grader and ninth-grader. "I don't understand why we take away any opportunity for them to shine and give them their moments."

She said it's "sad" that no county-wide sponsor has stepped forward.

"We always have sponsors for all the sports and things like that, but not this kind of achievement," Westenskow said.

In recent years, The Valley Journals have sponsored the bee, along with other businesses. But the Journals have increasingly been having trouble attracting cosponsors.

Boyd Petersen, Valley Journals sales manager, said the newspapers loved sponsoring the competition, but couldn't justify the expense anymore.

"This year, without sponsors, we just said, 'We can't afford it any longer,' " Petersen said.

Not all of Utah is in the same situation. Carbon, Emery and Grand counties are being sponsored by the Southeast Education Service Center; Alexander's print and marketing firm is sponsoring Davis, Juab, Sanpete, Utah and Wasatch counties; and San Juan County is sponsored by the Southeast Education Service Center and the Navajo Times Publishing Co., Inc.

It's not too late for a sponsor to take on Salt Lake County, said Chris Kemper, a national spelling bee spokesman. But time is running short.

He said the deadline for a sponsor to come forward is Monday.

He said sponsorship typically costs around $5,000.

"Our local sponsors are the lifeblood of the spelling bee," Kemper said. Typically, once a sponsor comes forward, each school then pays a $120 fee to officially enroll and access materials.

Taft said it will be a shame if no sponsor steps forward.

"There are those educators who, in some ways, don't think that spelling is a really integral part of an education because students can use spell check," Taft said, "but I happen to be one who thinks that language, the origin of language, how words are formed, vocabulary, is really part of the essence of an excellent education." —

How to become a sponsor

The deadline for a business or organization to step forward as a sponsor for spelling bees in Salt Lake County is Monday. Those interested in sponsoring the bee should go to spellingbee.com/contact. To learn more about sponsorship go to http://www.spellingbee.com.