When Ronald Benson-El became a first place citywide spelling bee winner in 1984, The Washington Informer had been the sponsor of the competition for two years. He said his widely-televised victory not only brought him to regional prominence but sparked interest in the newly-revived annual event.
Ronald, then a student at Miner Elementary School in Northeast, later represented D.C. in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. He would be among the first to do so in several years. During that competition, he went toe to toe with top-notch spellers from across the country, many of whom he studied with and later formed lifelong bonds.
Nearly 40 years later, Benson-El, now an actor who goes by Eli El, continues to relish that moment. Though he admits the frequent acknowledgment from strangers sometimes became overwhelming, Benson-El credited the spelling bee with instilling the spirit of consistency that’s pivotal to perfecting his acting craft.
“People recognized me. It made me see things differently,” said Benson-El who lives in the D.C. metropolitan area.
“I had a great coach, Mrs. Wilson, who practiced with me,” he said. “We took old spelling books from previous years and studied different words and word origins. It was pretty intense. They actually set aside time during the day [for me] to study with her. With that win came a lot of notoriety.”
On March 19, The Washington Informer hosted the 40th annual citywide spelling bee at the DC Office of Cable Television, Film, Music and Entertainment. Weeks prior, several dozen students who won spelling bees at their public, public charter and private schools participated in cluster bees at THEARC in Southeast.
After two days of spirited competition, 33 young people clinched a spot at the citywide bee. The cluster bee, held Feb. 9 and 10, preceded the annual citywide spelling bee. During the cluster bee, more than 140 spelling bee champions from 47 public, public charter and private schools participated in four competitions that brought them face to face with peers from across the city.
At various levels of competition, judges called on participants, whose grade levels ranged between third and eighth grades, to spell words from a common list. If they spelled a word correctly, the moderator advised the contestant and they were allowed to return to their seat. The ring of a judge’s bell followed each incorrect spelling. From there, contestants left the stage while their peers, family members and others cheered them on for their efforts.
Forty years ago, students across the city took similar steps to participate in The Washington Informer’s first citywide spelling bee at what was then known as Bertie Backus Junior High School in Northeast. In the years leading up to this event, District public school officials sought to create a platform for students to compete locally after The Washington Star, in its acquisition of The Washington Daily News, declined to continue sponsorship of the citywide bee.
By the time Washington Informer founder and publisher Dr. Calvin Rolark, and his daughter Denise Rolark, then managing editor, coordinated the citywide spelling bee, District students had been unable to compete locally for more than a decade. The father-daughter duo, in conjunction with the late Dr. Mary E. White, then the supervising director of D.C. Public Schools Division of Instructional Services, Department of English, breathed new life into the citywide spelling bee.
Celebrations briefly came to a halt however when Scripps National Spelling Bee officials deemed first place citywide winner John Krattenmaker ineligible because The Informer, a weekly paper, sponsored the local spelling bee. Scripps rules, at the time, limited sponsorship to only daily newspapers. The Washington Informer was and remains a weekly publication.
Dr. Rolark quickly sprang into action, threatening to file an injunction that would prevent the Scripps National Spelling Bee from taking place in the District. Shortly after, Scripps acquiesced but it was too late for Krattenmaker to participate in the national competition. Had Dr. Rolark followed through, the injunction alleged Scripps’ discriminated against African American-owned papers, many of which published weekly editions and served majority African-American districts. But it opened the door for Benson-El to become the first speller from the District to return to the national competition.
Several years later, The Washington Informer continues to host a citywide spelling bee that attracts thousands of young people.
Informer publisher Denise Rolark Barnes gives credit to the role NBC4 played in bringing the annual competition to a wider audience. “Beginning in it’s second year, Aisha Karimah, former NBC4 public affairs director, secured the station as a broadcast partner. For more than 35 years, the station was the home of the city-wide spelling bee and the place where Washington area viewers could cheer on local students,” Rolark Barnes said.
When major renovations began at the station’s broadcast facility on Nebraska Avenue NW, the bee was forced to find a new home. “Thanks to a decision by Angie Gates, director of the D.C. Office of Cable Television, Film, Music and Entertainment (OCTFME) the spelling bee found a new home. For the past three years, OCTFME produces and broadcasts the city-wide spelling bee at its facility and airs it on its DCN and DKN stations,” Barnes explained. This year’s bee will air on April 10.
In 2015, The Informer began to sponsor the Prince George’s County Spelling Bee when The Gazette and Gazette Star declined to keep doing so.
As the spelling bee continues to grow, some people, including Dr. Elizabeth Primas, remain a constant presence in the competition.
Primas, who returned to this year’s spelling bee as head judge, started working with The Informer Spelling Bee in 2004 while serving as a director of literacy. She said the bee aligned with her mission to boost literacy among young people. In addition, she strengthened school libraries and showed teachers how to teach students how to read across all content areas.
With the spelling bee’s success over the last 40 years, Primas continues to advocate for the inclusion of students from District public schools, public charter schools, private and parochial schools, and homeschools. While participation in the bee has waned in recent years for a bevy of reasons, including rising registration costs, the retirement of spelling bee coaches and the pandemic, The Informer continues to facilitate spelling bee activities.
Primas said she recognizes the spelling bee as an opportunity to celebrate young people’s scholastic aptitude and love for learning.
“The greatest thing is seeing the pride that children take in learning how to spell difficult words,” said Primas, who’s currently the education program manager for the National Newspaper Publishers Association. “When students learn spelling rules for multiple international languages, they increase their ability to spell any word they’re given at the bee.”
Past spelling bee winner Joseph Goings said he can attest to the thrill of learning new words. Throughout the late 1980s and until 1991, Goings counted among several young people who took part in the citywide spelling bee. In 1991, while in the sixth grade at Leckie Elementary School in Southwest, he placed eighth.
That experience, Goings said, primed him for a career in music and journalism where he had numerous opportunities to utilize his expansive vocabulary to convey important messages. He has done so at The Informer, The Washington Afro-American Newspaper, and through various independent ventures, including “Breakout Kings Radio” and “Balancing Act Radio Show,” which he hosted on WINDCRadio.com in 2017 and 2018 and 2018 to 2021, respectively.
In reflecting on his spelling bee experience, Goings, who hails from Southeast, said he recognized early on the gravity of his presence on the stage.
“I had a bit of pride representing Ward 8 and doing what I did,” Goings said. “A lot of those kids were from Uptown and more of the affluent neighborhoods in D.C.. The good thing about spelling bees is that it fosters healthy competition but you’re in competition with yourself because you have to learn how to spell those words.”