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Homeschooler wins Alachua County School District’s Spelling Bee

Correction appended: A previous version of this story contained an incorrect spelling of the winning word, "rasorial." We regret the error.

Thirty-six middle school students from 33 schools came together to compete in the annual Alachua County Spelling Bee in hopes of moving to the regional bee in Jacksonville and becoming a nationally recognized speller in Washington, D.C. The only homeschooled student to attend was crowned the winner and will advance to the next round.

As the 5th through 8th graders sat in their assigned seats, Patrick Gallagher, an AP Language and Composition teacher at Buchholz High School, began to announce for the spelling bee. His first piece of advice to the students was “breathe it in and breathe it out.”

Parents let out sighs of relief while the students sat in their chairs with their legs bouncing. No breath was made by those competing. Wearing name tags, numbers, colorful shoes and outfits that showed their personalities, students nervously waited for the bee to begin.

As organizers described the brief history of the bee, students and parents were reminded of its “upbeat, positive, buzzy” connotation. Students are already winners and should be proud to be sitting in these seats.

“You'll see the nervousness, the intensity, the joy, and also the inevitable. Only one person walks out of here spelling the last word correctly,” said Don Fitzpatrick, Secondary English Language Arts Curriculum Specialist.

Families and guests entered Idylwild Elementary School, signing in, gathering their name tags and collecting programs for the afternoon’s event.

During sign-in, Zoe Nelson, 10, of Cornerstone Academy Elementary School, said she was learning Latin, which might help her get farther in the bee. Her rainbow loom bracelet, brown braided belt and bubble braids accented her blue and beige school uniform.

“I am really nervous and really excited. I read a lot of books, so I have a pretty good vocabulary, so I think I'll do fine with that," she said. “I think [participating in the bee] is a good experience and a lot of fun to have. It might stretch my vocabulary, which would be nice.”

She also shared advice for other students — those who are currently participating and those who would like to. “I would tell other students that the worst thing that could happen is you get it wrong. Have fun and relax. If you lose, OK, at least you made it as far as you made it.”

Parents and guardians called children from their seats to get pictures, unashamed of embarrassing them. Leila Sapp, 10, of Rawlings Elementary School was pulled in by her principal, teacher and executive assistant from her school. She stood up nervously while they posed for a photo.

“It's a great opportunity for us to celebrate Alachua County students and their academic accomplishments and to recognize the teachers and the administrators supporting all of our students,” Fitzpatrick said.

During the bee, students ask for the word to be repeated, its definition, language of origin, part of speech or for the word to be used in a sentence. Words are typically chosen from the Scripps National Spelling Bee list of more than 4,000 terms organized into different challenge categories. Scripps publishes a yearly study guide

“The words from the Scripps list are incredibly challenging,” said Fitzpatrick. “It's like a sport to them. There are some who have been training for about a year, wanting to come back and win. There are others that have been really focused since December.”

After Fitzpatrick established the rules, Gallagher then returned to the podium to begin announcing the words. His final statement to the students invoked the challenge and competitive nature of the bee: “May the odds be ever in your favor.”

Speller No. 1, Aiden Burgo, 5th grade, from Alachua Elementary, rose from his seat in his gray long-sleeve shirt, gray sweatpants and his blue Nike shoes. Nervously, he approached the microphone to correctly spell the first word of the bee: lemonade.

Burgos watched patiently as other students spelled, nodding his head at each correct letter and throwing two thumbs up for every accomplishment.

A student then walked forward with his hands in his pockets and nervously adjusted the microphone during round one. The first misspelling of the bee was fadeaway.

Continuing in the bee, a boy in a suit stepped up to the microphone, introducing himself as the only homeschooled student there.

Another student approached using the well-known arm technique where she spelled February. In her all-pink outfit with a green claw clip in her hair, she began to spell, “F-E-B," then brought out her forearm and wrote the word with her finger. She succeeded.

Students sat, watched and waited for their turn. In passing, you could see them struggle to adjust the microphone to each of their heights. They scurried back and forth attempting not to bump into each other while walking between the aisles.

When an easy word was given, the audience could see a breath of relief come from the speller at hand — a smile on their face to acknowledge the luck of the list. Other students made faces in disbelief, wishing it was their word.

Once the rounds progressed and the words became more difficult, the misspellings piled on. From regiment and calculator to kudos and forgeable, mistakes began to pare down the number of competitors.

Homophones were the biggest trend of the bee, hoping to trip students up. Patience and patients along with humorous and humerus.

Between each round, students were comforted by their parents and guardians. Hugs, kisses and words of comfort were offered as they exited the school’s cafeteria.

The words brought to the remaining students by Gallagher remained consistent. “Breathe out round one, breathe in round two.”

Round after round, students left. By round seven, two students remained. Edwin Gao 12, of Lincoln Middle School and the lone homeschooler, Cooper Campen, 12.

Three rounds went on until the final word was spelled correctly in round 10.

The winning word was rasorial, an adjective meaning the birdlike habitual scratching of the ground in search for food, Campen defined, repeated and used it in a sentence multiple times. He was crowned the winner of the bee, welcomed by applause from all those who remained in the audience.

Campen shook Gao’s hand and congratulated him on his accomplishment. His family greeted him with hugs and pride.

“I feel great. Last year was my first year doing it and I got out on the third round,” Campen said. “It feels great now that I finally won. Last year, Campen lost to the word symmetry.

He prepared with a phone app, he said “I would go through all the words that they had. I would go through and bookmark the ones I got wrong and then after that, I would highlight them and focus on those words.” Although he did not specify the name of the app, Scripps publishes the Word Club app on the Apple and Google Play stores

“My favorite word to spell is defenestration,” he said, defined as the action of throwing someone out of a window.

He also has advice for future spellers. “I would tell anyone that if they really wanted to do the spelling bee you should learn certain tricks.”

He spoke about using the origin of the word as a strategy, which helps spellers find patterns among words from similar places and languages

Campen will now represent Alachua County in Jacksonville in hopes of competing at the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C.

Nicole is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing