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Fletcher’s achievement highlights academic success

ACHIEVEMENT — Isabella Fletcher, who will be an eighth-grader at Harding Middle School this fall, earned 16th place during the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee this summer. Her achievement highlights the importance of student success and local officials have worked to continue the annual Jefferson-Harrison Regional Spelling Bee to promote academics amid the present pandemic. -- Contributed

STEUBENVILLE — Steubenville’s Isabella Fletcher marked a milestone when she landed 16th place at the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee this summer, highlighting academic success among local students.

Fletcher, the daughter of Marlo Fletcher and Jayapal Reddy of Steubenville and an eighth-grader at Harding Middle School this fall, made it to the eighth round of the semifinals in an online version of the national competition in June. To get there, Fletcher first beat out 46 area students from Buckeye Local, Edison Local, Harrison Hills City, Indian Creek Local, Steubenville City, Toronto City, Heart of Mary Homeschool Association, Ohio Virtual Academy and Mary Seat of Wisdom Montessori School at the 36th-annual Herald-Star Jefferson-Harrison Regional Spelling Bee in March.

She advanced to the national event, where the first three rounds were held online before the final dozen contenders headed to Orlando, Fla., on July 8. Competitors traveled from throughout the United States, American Samoa, the Bahamas, Canada, Europe, Guam, Jamaica, New Zealand, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands but 14-year-old Zaila Avant-garde of Harvey, La., made history by becoming the first African-American student to take the top prize.

Fletcher was incredibly excited about her achievement.

“A-C-C-O-M-P-L-I-S-H-E-D!!! Never in my life had I felt that incredible amount of achievement as I did when I made it to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Knowing that I was one of 209 in the country was mind-blowing in itself, let alone being 16th,” she said, adding that studied every day for the competition. “I usually invested two to three hours during the school year and my summer schedule typically ranged from eight to 14 hours. I would study during car rides, at pool parties, during dinner and my dance break.”

Surprisingly, she said she was not interested in spelling bees in the past but has since become quite fond of the activity, plus she strived to do her best to advance through the ranks. Her advice to other students is to concentrate and have fun.

“My advice to other students would be to be laser-focused and just enjoy the journey, it’s not always about the destination. You can’t let the pressures of the world that surrounds you become an excuse for not studying. You have to make time to be successful and not procrastinate,” Fletcher said, also telling those who participated but did not win were still successful. “All your hard work wasn’t for nothing. OK, so maybe you didn’t move on and nobody recognized those gruesome hours you spent studying, but the important thing is you built character. Dedication, passion, life skills and a deeper level of intellect are all things you’ve gained. If that isn’t winning, I don’t know what is.”

Linda Lenzi, the gifted coordinator at the Jefferson County Education Service Center, proctored Fletcher, who is believed to have gone the farthest among local contenders in the national competition, and had nothing but praise for the bright, young student.

“She was a wonderful, dedicated girl. Her enthusiasm for the bee was one I haven’t seen in a while,” Lenzi said, adding that Fletcher participated at the JCESC location in Steubenville. “This was her first bee and she was a great person to represent the Ohio Valley. It took her a lot of time to get this far with a lot of studying and she made my job easy”

This also was Lenzi’s first time to proctor the bee, adding that the pressure was on for the virtual competition. Proctors were required to send an e-mail to event judges within 15 minutes after her round or students faced elimination. It also placed added pressure on students who worked through computer, but she said Fletcher handled it all with aplomb.

The Herald-Star Jefferson-Harrison Regional Spelling Bee may have been shelved because of COVID-19 in 2020, but this year’s event went off without a hitch thanks to ongoing support of its sponsors and coordinators. The regional bee is presented by the Herald-Star and coordinated by JCESC while sponsors also included Special Tactics and Rescue Training, Old Glory Embroidery, Huntington Bank, Ascent Resources, Encino Energy, Franciscan University of Steubenville, Tri-State Financial Services, Gary Cain Realty and Auctioneers, Gus’s Goodies, McBane Insurance & Financial Services and PNC Bank.

JCESC Superintendent Chuck Kokiko said the regional bBee has faced many challenges over the years from funding to the most recent pandemic.

“Through generous local support and recent JCESC grant-funded technology, the 2021 spelling bee was able to take place successfully. Outside of the traditional school day, area students have a variety of occasions to participate in athletics, fine arts, academic challenges and community service organizations,” Kokiko said. “The spelling bee is one of those great opportunities for our youth to excel and we are grateful to the individuals and organizations that make this possible. JCESC would like to extend a special congratulations to Isabella for her success. She was a great representative of our community and schools.”

Ron Sismondo, spelling bee coordinator for JCESC, said the regional bee would have marked its 37th year had it not been for COVID canceling last year’s activities, but he was pleased to see it make a return in an altered format.

“Many thousands of students have started out the 36 years of competition at their respective schools hoping to get a chance to compete in the Herald-Star Jefferson-Harrison County Regional Spelling Bee. Only 50 students compete in each regional bee with 12 alternates waiting each year to compete in case there is an opening,” Sismondo commented. “Approximately 1,800 students have the opportunity to compete in the regional bee over the years with an additional 600 alternates on standby.”

He noted that the logistics of the virtual regional bee were more difficult to navigate because of the pandemic but the competition was held in a Zoom format. The JCESC coordinated efforts with district representatives who designated a school building for their respective students to participate. They followed social distancing guidelines and conducted a test run prior to the event to correct any computer, Internet and sound issues. Any technical glitches were resolved at the start of the regional bee and the activity concluded successfully after 16 rounds.

Sismondo also extended thanks to the coordinators and sponsors for making it happen.

“I would like to thank all the spelling bee coordinators in their respective districts for all their help in making the virtual bee a success. Our virtual bee could not have been completed without their dedication,” he added. “All of our coordinators and bee officials donate their time and effort to having successful bees in their district as well as the regional bee. I would like to thank them for their dedication and we are extremely appreciative of all our sponsors.”

Coordinators included Ross Gallabrese, executive editor of the Herald-Star; Sismondo, Lenzi, Amber Fomenko and Patty Ferrell of JCESC; Susan Nolan, district coordinator for Buckeye Local; Mary Ann Hoobler, district coordinator for Edison; Ken Parker, Tammy Starr and Misty McConnaughy, district coordinators for Harrison Hills; Scott Abercrombie, district coordinator for Indian Creek; Gina Arlesic, district coordinator for Steubenville; Marlene Wolf, district coordinator for Toronto; Laura Sirilla, coordinator for home schools; Sue Ebie, coordinator for the Ohio Virtual Academy; and Mary Ann Zeroski, regional spelling bee pronouncer.

Sismondo also thanked the sponsors, saying the individual districts and regional bee could not take place without their generosity.

All donations go directly to students in the form of plaques, trophies and monetary awards for every regional bee participant, including alternates. Each year, the regional champion advances to the national bee for a week of competitions and sponsorships help defray the $3,900 cost. To that end, organizers are always looking for additional sponsors to help the students.

Meanwhile, Gallabrese said it has been a pleasure for the newspaper to serve as presenter because it heralds the success of local students.

“It’s something we’re happy to continue to be able to do. We think it’s a positive educational tool for learning,” he added. “It’s good for students to be able to compete in something that’s not in athletics and it’s exciting to know they can participate in academic competitions like this.”

He said the bee has evolved through the years from two regional events to one. He added it would not be possible to hold the event without the work of Sismondo and the coordinators for their work in seeing each contest through.

Darla Hoagland, of S.T.A.R.T., said the company has been a sponsor for about five years but she has a personal connection with bees in the past.

“I was a secretary at Buckeye Local and did the programs for the district spelling bee. I think it’s a great opportunity for kids to get up in front of people and spell words they don’t use every day. It’s great to support the families of those who won and went on to D.C. You always want to help the students in the area.”

Mark McKeen, community president for the Ohio Valley Region for Huntington Bank, said the bank has been involved for the past decade and will continue supporting the students.

“Many of our colleagues, like (Wintersville Branch Manager) Gary Stubbs, are engaged in the regional bee and see firsthand the benefit to the participants,” he added. “Huntington’s purpose is to make lives better and strengthen the community. The spelling bee is such a positive and important program to help students learn. And the community partners and supporters are collaborative – working hard to do the right thing for the kids in our community. We’re proud to be a part of it. We’re looking forward to be next year’s regional bee.”

The JCESC and Herald-Star are looking ahead to planning district and regional spelling bees for 2021-22. Anyone interested in becoming a sponsor can contact Sismondo at (740) 283-3347, ext. 152, or e-mail rsismondo@jcesc.org.

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