Can you spell “winners”…?

The top spellers from each grade were seated at the front of the room, a giant map of the world behind them. They glanced around nervously as parents and guests arrived. In less than an hour, one of them would be the school’s spelling bee champion.

I was there to emcee the event, which took place at San Tan Learning Center in Gilbert yesterday morning. My job was to give a short talk before the bee commenced. The school’s founders, Kristopher and Rita Sippel, thought it was important to have someone in a writing-related field kick off the event by explaining why proper spelling continues to be important throughout life.

Finalists (from left): Maahi Ameer (first grade), Amanda O'Hara (second grade), Matt Joanes (third grade), Matthew Bujor (fourth grade) and Kimball Conover (fifth grade).

This was an historic “first annual” event at the school, which is participating in the Scripps National Spelling Bee — an opportunity available to any private, public or charter school (and even homeschooled students) around the country. The 83-year-old program was created to help students improve their spelling, increase their vocabulary and develop correct English usage that will help them all their lives.

I participated in the program myself as a fifth grader. After placing second in Alamosa County, Colo., I traveled to Denver to participate at the state competition. I didn’t make it past the written exam, but I never forgot the experience. And it added fuel to my already burning desire to follow a career that involved reading, writing — and communicating with words.

Maahi realizes he's won the spelling bee.

Yesterday’s competition was a bit of an upset. First grader Maahi Ameer emerged the victor after a hard-fought battle through several rounds with third-grader Matt Joanes after other finalists in the second, fourth and fifth grades were eliminated. Matt got tripped up by the homonym “missile,” spelling it “mistle.” Maahi followed up by spelling both “straightforward” and “octopus” correctly, making him the winner.

Maahi’s mom was there with his baby sister. I watched her as she videotaped the event and noted her reaction when he stumbled on a word early in the final rounds and it looked like Matt might win. She was more nervous than he was.

“Maahi must be a voracious reader!” I said to her after the event.

“Well, not really,” she said.

“He must really practice a lot!” I said.

“Well, not really,” she said. “Yesterday he wanted to ride his bike so I told him he could do that for an hour if he’d also practice his spelling words for an hour.”

What I finally learned about Maahi is that he’s one of those educational sponges who remembers what he sees, reads and hears. So spelling comes somewhat naturally to him, which is fortunate. But he has his work cut out for him. As his school’s representative, he’ll get a whole new list of words to prepare for the regional spelling bee in February. If his luck holds, he’ll go on to the state bee in March. Whoever emerges as Arizona’s top speller will travel to Washington, D.C. for the national competition.

Kristopher Sippel congratulates winner Maahi Ameer.

San Tan Learning Center is a K-6 charter school located at 1475 S. Higley Rd. in Gilbert. Tucked in a quiet corner behind a retail complex at Higley and Ray Roads, it evolved as a natural extension of its sister school, San Tan Montessori Private Prep Academy, a private preschool.

The schools’ founders, Kristofer and Rita Sippel, are an educational dream team. Rita is a certified Montessori instructor with a master’s degree in education and supervision. Kris modestly describes himself as “the guy who keeps the lights on” but he recently completed a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction. (Rita also is planning to work on a Ph.D.) “We really feel it’s important to have the credentials,” Kris told me. “It gives parents confidence in the program.”

Here’s something that gave me confidence in the program. After the spelling bee concluded, Kris made an announcement to the kids who were eliminated. He encouraged them to check with spelling judge (and parent volunteer) Tammy White so they could learn what tripped them up. I was impressed when I saw runner-up Matt’s concentrated focus as he listened to Tammy explain the difference between “mistle” and “missile.”

Clearly these kids are getting it. Competition is fun but it’s not the end game.

Maahi's mom, Shakila Arshad, captures a tense moment on her video camera.

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