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One by one, 13 faces of D.C.’s top spellers popped onto a Zoom screen, a place for learning each one of them had become accustomed to over the past year. This day was different, though. Not only were they appearing early on a Saturday morning, but each of them had earned their way to be seen in a square and to compete for the title of D.C.’s top speller in the 39th annual Washington Informer Spelling Bee.
For the first time, the bee was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The excitement and fanfare from past bees broadcast from the studios of NBC4 and the Office of Cable Television, Film, Music and Entertainment (OCTFME) had boiled down to a do-it-yourself, on-screen button, and “unmute yourself” commands to students participating in their own homes. Never before were spellers required to verbally pledge to be honest and fair or simply not to cheat.
Dave Zahren, the bee’s official pronouncer, was the only person allowed in OCTFME’s studios in Northeast. Obviously, from past spelling bees, Zahren loves interacting with these skilled young orthographers before and during the contest that can last for hours. Even for him, he said, this bee was harder than ever.
None of that seemed to matter once these third through eighth-graders started to spell. In their separate boxes, three judges watched and listened carefully as each student skillfully tackled words such words as piety, crepuscular, tachycardia, and sousaphone.
Prince Ellington, the youngest, a third-grader from Ketchum Elementary School in Southeast, fidgeted in his seat while wearing a Just Do It Nike tee-short. He brilliantly tackled scheme, whittle, and buffoonery before coming out in the fourth round with isosceles.
But it was those final rounds that grew excitement as last year’s second-place winner Niamh O’Donovan, an 8th grader from the Washington Latin School, faced off with newcomer Nalleti Otieno, a sixth-grader from St. Augustine’s Catholic School. The two went round after round, battling it out, with multisyllabic words including cyanosis, violaceous, and reconnoiter.
The final word – bobolink – cast Niamh into second place again as Nalleti followed with the correct spelling of pointelle in the tenth and final round. Now she will go on to represent D.C. in three more virtual competitions leading to the National Scripps Spelling Bee in Orlando, Fla., in May.
Nalleti’s face glowed with triumph when she politely asked, “Can I go tell my mom,” upon learning she was the citywide winner. When Zahren asked about her mother’s response, Nalleti said, “She’s ecstatic!”
“We were all so excited, screaming with joy and plenty of happy tears!” said Caroline Beruchan, Nalleti’s mother. “We immediately reached out to her teacher and coach Dr. Olga Williams and our immediate families in Kenya and Uganda to share and celebrate Nalleti’s achievement.”
“I have been told that she is a very determined, respectful, and kind student with great leadership skills. Always willing to help her fellow students,” Buchan added.
“Nalleti never gives up on anything no matter how long it takes.”
Nalleti is an award-winning student that enjoys math, science, religion, and technology. Her honors include the Langston Hughes Award for English/LA, School Spirit Award, Citizen Award, and an honor cadet in the United States Sea Cadet Corps at H.E.Mooberry Division.
Jason Moore, manager of Elementary Assessments and Interventions at DCPS and coordinator of the D.C. citywide spelling bee, agreed that “this has been an incredible year.” With fewer schools participating this year due to at-home learning and less time for extra-curricular activities, he praised all 13 spellers for going the extra mile and thanked them for their participation.
This year marks the second in a partnership between OCTFME and The Washington Informer. The District government-owned network DKN will broadcast the bee on Sunday, April 25 at 3 p.m.
Director Angie Gates said, “OCTFME is excited to partner with The Washington Informer and Denise Rolark-Barnes in hosting the 39th Annual Washington Informer Citywide Spelling Bee. This is our second year hosting this important event. The Washington Informer has been involved in the Citywide Spelling Bee for almost 40 years, and its Publisher Denise Rolark-Barnes is committed to ensuring that D.C. School students can compete on the local level, with one hard-working student representing the city at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.”
She congratulated each student and wished them good luck.
Washington Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes, chairman of Washington Informer Charities, congratulated the students for not allowing this “extraordinary year” to keep them from doing something they clearly love – spelling. “You’ve entered the spelling bee and used your own time to study, compete and get to the citywide competition. Congratulations. You are all winners in so many ways.”
Rolark Barnes also thanked this year’s sponsors, including Pepco, Safeway Foundation, Washington Nationals, Washington Gas, “who are committed to supporting educational opportunities for D.C. students.
Tracye Funn, manager of Corporate Contributions and Supplier Diversity at Washington Gas, a long-standing supporter of the Spelling Bee events, said, “ [We] felt it especially critical to continue that support given the circumstances of the COVID pandemic. Youth needed an outlet to expand their educational opportunities and experiences, and the Bee competitions helped filled that void. We applaud the Washington Informer Charities for their leadership, insight, and ingenuity to coordinate and overcome those challenges and host two stellar Bee competitions.”