Curriculum change could spell end for city bee

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Frank Schultz
Saturday, September 15, 2012

— The annual Janesville Spelling Bee may be a thing of the past.

Janesville School District officials issued a statement Friday, saying the district “is evolving from the tradition of the citywide spelling bee.”

Officials did not say outright that the citywide spelling bee is dead, but it appears it’s flying on just one wing.

Parents who want their children to compete in a spelling bee are asked to send the district an email.

Curriculum director Kim Ehrhardt said he couldn’t say what any future spelling bee might look like. He said that depends on how much interest parents express in it.

“If we want to have a spelling contest, then I would see that as more of an after-school activity,” Ehrhardt said.

Officials say they believe spelling is important, but they believe the class time now spent on spelling bee preparations could be better used to teach reading and writing.

Ehrhardt said learning standards don’t emphasize spelling, and the state doesn’t test students on it.

The state does test reading and writing, and those are areas in which the district needs to improve, Ehrhardt said.

“This change comes as the school district puts increased attention and energy on higher rigor and preparation of students to be college and career ready,” according the statement. “College and career readiness standards require students to articulate complex ideas, support positions with evidence and use communication skills for authentic purposes.”

The announcement suggests that instead of spelling bees, students should compete in the Southern Lakes Anthology Competition, the Delta Kappa Gamma Book Writing Contest and the PTA Reflections Contest, “among others.”

The city spelling bee has been held on the morning of a school day each fall. Students in public and private elementary and middle schools competed at their schools to qualify for the city bee. Winners advanced to a regional competition, where they could qualify for a state spelling bee and ultimately the national spelling bee.

The city’s private schools were informed that the district was considering this move, Ehrhardt said.

Ehrhardt did not immediately know the cost of putting on the annual bee.

Principals and their superiors at the central office made the decision. The school board was not involved.

School board President Bill Sodemann had not heard of the change until contacted Friday. He said he would prefer to preserve the bee if possible.

“I just think it’s something that is a tradition that I hate to see go away. I understand the reasoning, but it’s kind of like apple pie,” Sodemann said.

The board doesn’t get into curriculum details, Sodemann said, but it has made decisions about events such as the fourth- and fifth-grade track meet.

Sodemann suggested the school board could address the issue if it there’s a substantial backlash.

How long the city schools have held a bee was not immediately known.

Howard Gage, who organized the first TV broadcast of a citywide spelling bee around 1980, remembers city bees when he was a student at St. Mary School in the late 1940s.

Spelling bees are an American invention. Various sources say that the first printed reference to a spelling bee was in 1825, although spelling bees are believed to have started even earlier.

A national spelling bee has been held since 1925.

A 1921 Gazette article refers to a Janesville school spelling bee in the 1850s in which famed temperance leader and educator Frances Willard was a competitor.

Last updated: 4:38 pm Tuesday, August 27, 2013

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