Dressed in beekeeper’s suits, Elizabethan outfits and gorilla masks, competitors in New Haven Reads’ fourth annual spelling bee breezed through spelling “anticipate,” “chihuahua” and “anencephalic” Friday evening.
Education outreach initiative Higher One CARES sponsored the bee, which is held as a yearly fundraiser for New Haven Reads, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving literacy in New Haven through tutoring services and book banks. This year a record high of 46 teams, including participants of a range of ages, filled the auditorium at the Yale School of Management’s Evans Hall, according to New Haven Reads assistant director Fiona Bradford. Teams paid a registration fee to participate, and audience members and other community organizations also donated to the event, which met its $30,000 fundraising goal.
“We started [the bee] because we’re a literacy organization, and our mission is to share the joy and power of reading,” Bradford said. “We wanted to do a fundraiser but we wanted something that was connected to our mission — yet this isn’t your sort of standard spelling bee.”
Instead of competing by spelling words in front of a microphone, competitors formed teams of three. These teams participated in rounds, or “swarms.” Each team collaborated to spell words on a whiteboard, which they then presented to judges. After spelling a word incorrectly, a team would be eliminated. The last team standing in each swarm entered the final round. At the end of the tournament, the “Spelltaculars” — a team sponsored by law firm Wiggin and Dana — cinched the win by correctly spelling “numismatic.”
Seven of the teams represented local high schools, including the Foote School, Hill Regional Career High School and Wilbur Cross High School. The “Spellurz,” the winning high school team from Hopkins School, received a trophy.
The judges featured a slate of community leaders, including general manager of community radio station AM 1220 WQUN Ray Andrewsen and New Haven Reads tutor Stacy Spell. The third judge, state senator Gary Winfield, also announced door prize winners.
New Haven Reads executive director Kirsten Levinsohn told the crowd that Connecticut has the highest education-achievement gap in the country. She added that only 30 percent of the city’s third-graders are reading at grade level.
“That’s a problem,” Levinsohn said. “New Haven Reads has a solution: our program works.”
400 people tutor children through the organization each week, but more volunteers are still needed, Levinsohn said. She added that each week, New Haven Reads tutors serve over 500 students of all ages.
The literacy programs funded by the bee’s proceeds include one-on-one tutoring sessions, as well as a community book bank that provides local schoolchildren and teachers with free books, Bradford said.
Team sponsors included local nonprofits and businesses like Connecticut Voices for Children and the Study at Yale, as well as University-affiliated organizations such as Yale-New Haven Hospital and the Office of New Haven and State Affairs.
The University’s support of New Haven Reads extends beyond spelling bee sponsorship — Yale also provides the nonprofit with office space on Bristol Street and at Science Park, Bradford said. New Haven Reads uses the Dixwell-Yale Community Learning Center for their tutoring sessions, she added.
New Haven Reads tutor Greg Berg, a member of the “Beeguilers” team, said that competition in the bee has become increasingly more difficult over the years. The Beeguilers is the only team to have participated in the bee every year since its inaugural competition, according to Berg.
“Our goal the first year was to beat [former Yale College Dean] Mary Miller,” said Risa Sodi, director of academic advising for Yale College and Beeguilers member. “Which we did.”
New Haven Reads was founded in 2001.