Students Practice for First Black Spelling Bee

Tomorrow morning, Houston's first African American spelling bee will be held at Jack Yates High school near the University of Houston. Students from a number of area charter schools will compete for scholarships and prizes. Bill Stamps talked with organizers and teachers about the event and why they decided to put it together.


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Houston businessman Robert Garner wants to help his community. You can debate whether he’s going about it the right way, but what you can’t question is his heart.

“We’re trying to educate our community, which we feel like that’s in peril.”

Garner sees an inner city community that is struggling. High unemployment, thanks in part to high dropout rates and after learning no black student had ever won the popular Scripps Spelling Bee that’s shown on television, Garner decided to start a separate competition for inner city black schools.

“All we’re trying to do is be accountable for a community that’s in trouble in education. Scripps is wonderful, keep doing Scripps.”

 (students say in unison: “caller please may have the definition, caller please use the word in a sentence…”)

In this classroom, at the Boys and Girls Academy on West Bellfort, students practice spelling each day. There are three teachers who help them not just with their words, but also on how to act and carry themselves.

This is 7th grade teacher Brenda Upton.

“Make sure they are dressed right, make sure their attire is set. Ladies sit the way they are supposed to sit; gentlemen stand they way they’re supposed to stand. Things like that.”

“Anti coagulant.”

“A-N-T-I C-O-A-G-U-L-A-N-T.”

Starting a separate spelling bee for black students raises a number of questions. The most obvious is why? Another would be regarding the message it could send to black students, who may win competing against their black peers, but not against the larger population. Garner says he’s not worried about all that.

Boys and Girls standing up practicing for the spelling bee“We’re in a battlefield, where it’s really needed, and we feel like whatever we gotta do to get these kids educated. We’re going to do it, by any means.”

Teacher Brenda Upton agrees and says it’s not about whether her students can spell better than Asian students or white students, it’s  about giving struggling children a chance to get excited about learning new words and education as a whole.

“If any one of the ten to fifteen students that we have competing Saturday win, hey we’ve done a whole lot.”

The words may not have the level of difficulty as those we’ve all heard and seen at the National Spelling Bee, but the organizers admit their children aren’t at that level. By getting the kids involved and building an interest, they hope to get there…one day.

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