Stung by spell­ing tie, Scripps isn’t so wild about wild cards

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - NATION & WORLD - By Ben Nuck­ols

The Scripps Na­tional Spell­ing Bee will have fewer par­tic­i­pants next year. Whether it will have fewer cham­pi­ons re­mains to be seen.

Six months af­ter the bee ended in an un­prece­dented eight-way tie be­cause or­ga­niz­ers ran out of words that were dif­fi­cult enough to trip up the best spell­ers, Scripps has an­nounced the first in a se­ries of re­forms to the com­pe­ti­tion. While bee or­ga­niz­ers aren’t say­ing how they’ll come up with a more chal­leng­ing word list, the bee is re­duc­ing the num­ber of wild-card en­trants, which ought to stream­line an event that was be­com­ing un­wieldy.

The bee will have roughly 140 wild-card en­trants, down from nearly 300 this year. That means the com­pe­ti­tion would top out at about 400 spell­ers. This year, there were 562 kids in the bee, which is open to stu­dents through the eighth grade.

And un­like in pre­vi­ous years, wild cards will be avail­able only to sev­en­t­hand eighth-graders. There were dozens of first-timers and younger spell­ers among this year’s wild cards, and cur­rent and for­mer spell­ers said they were con­cerned the pro­gram had strayed from its in­tended pur­pose and was let­ting in nearly any­one able to pay the $1,500 en­try fee, plus travel, lodg­ing and ex­penses. Spell­ers who qual­ify via the tra­di­tional route, by win­ning a re­gional bee, have their trip to na­tion­als paid for by spon­sors.

There were 17 wild cards age 9 or younger this year, and none sur­vived to join the 50 spell­ers who made the fi­nals. The pre­lim­i­nary rounds fea­tured wild-card spell­ers who were clearly over­whelmed by such words as “ten­don,” “vestibule,““al­lo­ca­tion” and “gyro.”

Four­teen-year-old Si­mone Ka­plan of Davie, Florida, who just missed be­ing part of the octet of cham­pi­ons in this year’s bee, said she no­ticed the strug­gles of some younger wild-card spell­ers.

“The change gives the stu­dents in sixth grade and be­low who don’t win their dis­trict bees more chances to hone their skills for next year,” said the eighth­grader, who is hop­ing to re­turn for her fourth bee. “I think that mak­ing the bee smaller is also go­ing to make it more com­pet­i­tive, so, yes, I think it is a good thing.”

Paige Kim­ble, the bee’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, said ahead of the an­nounce­ment that older kids ought to be the fo­cus of the wild-card pro­gram be­cause they are run­ning out of chances to make the bee. She said Scripps will take into ac­count ap­pli­cants’ per­for­mances in past bees and the dif­fi­culty of their re­gions.

Scripps also an­nounced a fi­nan­cial aid pack­age for spell­ers who ap­ply through the wild-card pro­gram, known as “RSVBee.” The bee will cover the en­try fees and ex­penses of up to 18 wild-card spell­ers who qual­ify for free or re­duced­price school lunches.

“We have al­ways been sen­si­tive to the fi­nan­cial need as­pect of RSVBee,” Kim­ble said. “We look for­ward to help­ing spell­ers and their fam­i­lies who are in need make it to the na­tional stage.”

The wild-card pro­gram be­gan with the 2018 bee in a bid to give op­por­tu­ni­ties to kids who live in highly com­pet­i­tive re­gions or in ar­eas with­out spon­sored bees, and it paid off im­me­di­ately when Karthik Nem­mani, a wild card from the Dal­las area, won the bee. Dal­las and Hous­ton are home to some of the strong­est fields of spell­ers at the re­gional level, and Karthik had lost his county bee to the girl he ended up de­feat­ing for the na­tional ti­tle.

None of this year’s eight cham­pi­ons was a wild card.

As for the word list, its cre­ation is a year­long process, the de­tails of which Scripps has al­ways kept se­cret. Kim­ble would only say that the process is on sched­ule. But she main­tains that the eight-way tie did not re­flect poorly on the bee.

“We will present a com­pe­ti­tion that is chal­leng­ing and that also hon­ors the achieve­ment of th­ese spell­ers who have worked so very hard to mas­ter the ins and outs of the English lan­guage,” Kim­ble said. “Our fo­cus more than any­thing else is on cel­e­brat­ing that achieve­ment.”

PA­TRICK SE­MAN­SKY/AP

Si­mone Ka­plan hugs her mother, Alana, af­ter reach­ing the fi­nal round of the Scripps Na­tional Spell­ing Bee in May.

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