Home-schoolers grab a share of victory in contest's past 10 years

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Fourth-grader Leila Hardy, 9, raises her hand to spell a word during an exercise at Beaverton's Village Home Education Resource Center. Hardy is representing the home-school center in the annual Portland Tribune/ Comcast Spelling Bee on Saturday at the Hollywood Theatre.Portland-area home-schoolers may be small in

n-u-m-b-e-r-s, but they certainly can spell w-i-n-n-e-r.

A handful of home-school students have won five of the past 10 Portland Tribune/Comcast Regional Spelling Bees. And about 10 percent of the students competing in the annual three-day Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., are home-schoolers.

What’s their secret? Practice, practice, practice, says Rosayln Newhouse, a part-time teacher (and mother of a two-time bee winner) at the Village Home Education Resource Center in Beaverton.

“We don’t memorize spelling lists,” says Newhouse, whose daughter, Shelley Clark, won the regional bee in 2006 and 2007. “For us, it’s talking about how words are formed and why. The main thing is just giving the kids an opportunity to have fun with language and words.”

More than 50 students from public, private and home schools across the region will compete in the 10th annual Portland Tribune/Comcast Regional Spelling Bee beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday, March 15, at the Hollywood Theatre, 4122 N.E. Sandy Blvd., Portland.

In the past 10 years of the regional spelling bee, three winners have come from the Village Home Education Resource Center: Clark; Connor Aberle of Beaverton (who won in 2009 and 2010); and Katie Carter, who won in 2012.

Shelley Clark’s victories in 2006 and 2007 came after home-school students from the Village Home Education Resource Center were invited to participate in the regional spelling bee, Newhouse says.

“It was very exciting for our students, and a great opportunity for them,” she says.

Newhouse’s students were so excited about the regional competition that they formed a “spelling club” in those early years. Since then, the Village Home campus in Beaverton has developed a linguistics class, taught by Newhouse, which she cited as one of the sources of her daughter’s and the program’s other students’ success in the competition.

“It’s not a spelling class, but we focus on etymology and spelling patterns and language and how words work with each other,” she says. “There are 400,000-plus words in the dictionary the national bee uses, and you can’t possibly memorize every one of them. But what we try to do is give them tools that can help them decode the word.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Gabby Calvi, 10, left, Will Mueller, 10, Joe Finley ,13, and Autumn Straus, 10, play Bananagrams during a class at Village Home Education Resource Center in Beaverton. The home-schoolers are learning the roots of words as part of the centers language and spelling classes.

Birth of the language

The winner of last year’s regional bee, 12-year-old Divya Amirtharaj, who attends Meadow Park Middle School in Beaverton, hopes to defend her crown at this year’s contest. Last year, Amirtharaj correctly spelled “rapscallion” to win the competition, topping 55 other students in the contest.

Mark Wandell, one of Amirtharaj’s teachers in the Meadow Park “Summa” initiative — an exclusive program for the district’s top students — says teaching Greek and Latin roots of words is a focus throughout the Beaverton public school system, and not just in language arts.

“If they’re learning about a body part in anatomy, they learn the Latin word for that part,” he says.

Summa students go a step further, where Wandell — a humanities teacher — leads them through a simulation of the “birth” of the English language, which explores the various Germanic and ethnic dialects that formed the roots of our modern patois.

Like Newhouse’s class at Village Home, Wandell thinks this curriculum gives students the tools they need to excel at spelling bees, even though that’s not the course’s primary purpose.

“They learn everything when it comes to words: what they mean, how to use them, and how to spell them, but it’s all done in context,” he says. “We don’t give them word lists to memorize, and we don’t prepare them specifically for the bee system. I guess that’s one of the things with public schools is we have too many other axes to grind.”

Newhouse’s students participate in a few “practice bees,” but they don’t take advantage of their greater autonomy and class freedom by having their students memorize long catalogs of words like “querulous” and “milieu.” It’s more likely that the secret to success can be found, not in the syllabus, but within the students themselves, Newhouse says.

It’s not unusual for one of Newhouse’s students participating in a bee to correctly spell a word he or she has never heard before, thanks to the class program’s focus on mechanics and etymology.

Students in the bee — both home-schoolers and those attending public or private schools — are self-driven, creative and have an insatiable appetite for achievement. As an example, Newhouse says Shelley Clark cleared the first two rounds in the national spelling bee her first year in the tournament, but then stumbled in the third round.

“She began studying for the next year about 40 minutes after she was eliminated,” Newhouse says.