Keyonna Parker competes during the Central Community Spelling Bee while her brother looks on. Keyonna won first place among 7th graders. Credit: Kenyatta Crisp / Signal Cleveland

The buzz at the Friendly Inn on Saturday, May 13, was the sound of scholars spelling vocabulary words. 

Signal Cleveland and Inner Visions of Cleveland sponsored the Central Community Spelling Bee Challenge for children in grades 5-8. The Cleveland Central Promise Neighborhood Initiative, founded in 2009, found that students who live in the Central community could benefit from targeted educational interventions. That led members of the Signal Cleveland Listening Team to design and pilot the spelling bee.

Members of the diverse listening team attended a giving circle sponsored by Inner Visions of Cleveland, a group that “seeks out residents with both simple and complex project ideas that will help to build better neighborhoods.” Listening team members submitted a proposal for a spelling bee, and Inner Visions donated $1,000 towards the event.

The spelling bee for the children of Central had the same lure, intrigue and excitement as any other. Annually, the Scripps National Spelling Bee is held in May. This year 15 Ohioans, including one Cleveland student, will compete. Many will be sponsored by the local newspaper in their community. Contests are held by organizers who customize the events to the needs of their communities.

In Cleveland, from 2014 to 2019, the Glenville Festival included an impromptu spelling bee in the Children’s Village. Community business partners such as McDonald’s served as sponsors. Spelling bee contests have inspired movies, television episodes and documentaries.

Bee-hind the scenes

For the Central Community Spelling Bee, we put out a call to engage community partners to recruit children to participate. Staff of the Sterling branch of the Cleveland Public Library, The Friendly Inn, Signal Cleveland, City of Cleveland, Burten, Bell, Carr, Development Inc., Central Cleveland Promise Ambassadors, Sisters of Charity, Cleveland Municipal School District (CMSD), Say Yes coordinators and student volunteers, City of Cleveland staff, and volunteers from Cuyahoga Community College all responded.

Registration was open to any student living or active in the Central community. More than 35 students in grades 5-8 registered. But the enthusiastic participation of many K-4 students who eagerly await their opportunity was present at every session. The children were invited to study sessions with members of the Central Listening Team and given lists of words to study. Organizers also gave study tools and incentives to participants in the weeks leading up to the event.

Organizers showed some students the movie “Akeelah and the Bee” and others an episode of “The Proud Family” spelling bee episode to highlight the popularity of the contests and the importance of spelling.  In the article “The Importance of Vocabulary” Jody B. Miller outlined how vocabulary is critical to a child’s success.

During the bee, students pronounced, mispronounced, spelled correctly (and sometimes incorrectly) and wrote down their responses all toward the goal of building vocabulary. It is unclear if the true motivation was the $50 cash prize for first place as well as trophies because the prizes were not announced until weeks after the promotion of the bee began. 

Central taking up the challenge

Signal Community Reporter Najee Hall said, “It was beautiful to see the children encouraging one another as the spelling bee went on. Although it was competitive, it felt like they were all on the same team.”

Signal Central Community Listening Team Member LaQueta Worley assembled a panel of judges for the event. The judges were Miriam Erb, from the Sisters of Charity; Joyce Pan Huang, director of Planning for the City of Cleveland; and Gwendolyn Garth, Central Cleveland Promise Ambassador. Each was asked to share about their experience. 

Erb wrote: “It was a privilege to help in the judging of the spelling bee and see the enthusiasm of the students who participated. It was amazing to hear them spell words with great confidence. It showed how hard they studied for this event. Congratulations to all the students who took part in this special event, and a special acknowledgement to our winners. You were fantastic.” 

Huang said, “I was excited to see young people taking up the challenge…with our community rallying around them with encouragement, they can do whatever they put their minds to. I hope they had fun and come back next year! I had a great time seeing the kids and spending time with my fellow judges.” 

Garth said, “I applaud the children for their courageousness and Signal Cleveland for this great beginning of a good thing. As a spelling bee judge, I saw the pictorial definition of this Malcom X quote: ‘Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.’ The community still has lots of work to do!” 

Many others also helped with the event.

Starting with our words

Students indicated that weekly spelling tests are no longer the norm. They said they sometimes learn new vocabulary using a website on their Chromebooks or laptops. Teachers may require them to complete 45 minutes per week on the website Membean, a vocabulary program. One student said, “We use Membean. It’s OK. I learned a few new words using it.” 

Horace Mann is considered the father of American public education. He believed that providing better education to everyone protected democracy. Mann also promoted good physical health so that children would regularly attend school. 

He said, “Education is to instruct the whole people in the proper care of the body, in order to augment the powers of that wonderful machine and to prevent so much of disease, of suffering and of premature death.” 

If the question is how do we correct what ails our communities, then the answer is education starting with our words. Bringing back a spelling bee is a start!

Community Listener (she/her)
Kellie Morris is a Cleveland Documenter and a member of Signal Cleveland’s Central Community Listening Team.