The 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee began Saturday on a virtual basis with a 13-year-old from Tarzana and two from Orange County among the reduced field of 209.
Irene Thomas graduated Friday from eighth grade at the Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies, a fourth through 12th grade magnet school in Tarzana. It kept its original name after moving to the site of the former Sequoia Junior High School in 1980.
She enjoys reading books (dystopian novels in particular) and playing chess, the video game Minecraft and the multiplayer online game Roblox. She also likes making origami (mostly animals), building with Lego, eating chocolate and deciphering riddles and jokes. Her favorite book is the young adult high fantasy novel “Eragon,” favorite author is J.R.R. Tolkien and favorite actress is Emma Watson.
“Irene is studious and an exceptional scholar with a perfect GPA,” Sherman Oaks CES Principal Katie McGrath said. “She is kindhearted and shows patience and compassion toward others.”
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Baominh Le and Sophia Lin both graduated Thursday from The Pegasus School, a private, pre-kindergarten through eighth grade school in Huntington Beach. They qualified for the national bee by tying for the championship in the Orange County Spelling Bee, which was conducted March 6 with a 50-question online test.
Plans for a tie-breaking round were dropped when they were notified by The Orange County Register and Orange County Department of Education that both would advance to the national bee.
Baominh is a pianist, enjoys running in 5K races and started the Lexington Chapter of the Little Free Library, putting a book-sharing box in the neighborhood near his school.
Baominh is highly interested in technology, would love to tour the Apple headquarters in Cupertino and hopes to obtain a pilot's license.
Sophia has been an avid reader since a young age, quickly befriending the school librarians to get more and more book recommendations. She also enjoys mathematics and coding and wants to pursue a career in medicine or science. Sophia is a flutist with the Southern California School Band & Orchestra Association Honor Band. She finished second at an international music competition playing the piano and competes in dance competitions.
No speller from Los Angeles or Orange counties has won the bee.
Saturday's preliminaries consist of three rounds of oral competition. In the first round, spellers are asked to spell a word. If they spell it correctly, they will compete immediately in the second round, answering a multiple-choice word meaning question. If they answer that correctly, they will be asked to spell another word.
Spellers answering all three questions correctly will advance to Tuesday's quarterfinals.
The preliminaries will be televised by the streaming service ESPN3 from 7 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Pacific Time.
All competition through the semifinals will be held on a virtual basis.
The top 10-12 finalists will travel to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Bay Lake, Florida for the finals, which will be held July 8.
The bee is limited to students who were in eighth grade or lower on Aug. 31, 2020.
Contestants range in age from 9 to 15 years old. The field consists of spellers from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, along with Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Department of Defense schools in Europe.
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Four foreign nations are also represented -- the Bahamas, Canada, Ghana, and Japan. The winner will receive $50,000, a commemorative medal and the Scripps Cup, the official championship trophy of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, from Scripps, which owns television stations and cable and broadcast networks.
The winner will also receive $2,500 and a complete reference library from the dictionary publisher Merriam-Webster; $400 of reference works from Encyclopedia Britannica, including a replica set of the 1768 encyclopedia, and a three-year online membership.
The coronavirus pandemic prompted organizers to make several changes to the bee in addition to holding the competition on a virtual basis through the semifinals and dropping a multiple-choice test with 12 spelling words and 14 vocabulary questions.
A proprietary online testing platform was developed to provide educators and other program sponsors with an alternate and easily accessible mechanism to administer testing for local-level bees, allowed for greater flexibility to participate while complying with local pandemic response requirements.
Organizers also provided guidance for schools and sponsors who carried out video conference spelling bees. The bee contracted with a technology vendor to create a level playing field and competition space so every speller in the national finals has the same virtual experience.
The vendor also provided the bee with tracking information to uphold the integrity of the competition. In an attempt to duplicate the bee's comradery amongst the spellers and to ensure spellers and families felt like they were at Bee Week organizers designed a virtual suite of programs, with a space to connect and celebrate their accomplishments.
Virtual events for spellers and families included a virtual kickoff party, including a family scavenger hunt and dance party, and a virtual opening ceremony Friday livestreamed on Facebook and YouTube.
The field dropped 62.8% from the record field of 562 when the bee was last held in 2019 mainly because of the dropping of the RSVBee program, which gave students living in areas without sponsored regional competitions the opportunity to advance to the national bee along with spellers in competitive regions, where one speller is declared the winner from thousands of schools.
All but one of the five spellers from Los Angeles County in the 2019 national bee qualified through the RSVBee program and one of the two from Orange County.
The coronavirus pandemic prompted cancellation of the 2020 bee. The program was first offered for the 2018 bee and that year's champion, Karthik Nemmani, from McKinney, Texas, was an RSVBee participant.
A decision on whether the program will return in 2022 has not been made because “the Bee is laser-focused on the 2021 competition and creating a fun and memorable experience for its 209 finalists this year,” Becca Cochran McCarter, Scripps' manager, external communications, told City News Service.
“The Scripps National Spelling Bee is always evaluating its program to make sure it's the best experience for all and provides the greatest opportunity for spellers everywhere,” Cochran McCarter said.