For 14-year-old Akshita Balaji, a combination of hard work and passion spelled success.
A Herndon resident, Akshita tied for 21st place in the Scripps National Spelling Bee semifinals, which was held virtually and aired on ESPN on Sunday (June 27) after the nationwide competition was canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
She spent around 12 hours per day preparing for the last six months and studied around 6,000 words per day.
“It was definitely a little hard at first but I kind of got used to it,” she said. “When I was studying, it didn’t feel like I was doing work, you know? Because one word led to another.”
When she saw a word, she wanted to know its relation to another or why it’s spelled that way, she explained.
Her Scripps placement marked the first time in at least a decade that a Fairfax County Public Schools student has advanced that far, according to FCPS via the Fairfax County Council of Parent Teacher Associations.
Since the event, she’s been taking it easy. Her family held a party the following day, and friends visited and brought her gifts, and family sent her flowers, gifts, and cake.
“Everybody posted a lot of messages for her on Facebook and, you know, different forums,” her mother, Sumitra Sampath, said. “We created a little scrapbook for her with all those messages…[and] pictures from different bees.”
A graduate of Herndon’s Rachel Carson Middle School, Akshita will attend ninth grade at Westfield High School in the fall and wants to become a surgeon one day.
Her vocabulary could come in handy for medical school. She notes that Romance languages like Spanish, which she studied last year, and French, which she plans to learn, have Latin roots that could help with the learning curve. She also knows Tamil and Hindi.
“Because of spelling, the Latin word, when it goes into French, you can tell what Latin word it came from,” she said. “That helps you really understand the language because you can…understand the roots and actually where it came from and not just memorize what it means.”
Sampath noted that her daughter, who won her first spelling bee when she was in first grade, watched the Scripps bees on TV as a kid, looked up to prestigious spellers in elementary school, and wondered how cool it would be to win.
Akshita hoped to reach the finals, which will take place in person at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort on July 8, but she says she’s interested in competing in other spelling bees this year.
Scripps semifinalists receive a commemorative medal and $500 gift card. The overall winner gets $50,000 and other prizes. The contest is limited to those who are in the eighth grade or below.
While Akshita has now aged out of the Scripps competition, her mother also notes that her daughter is interested in coaching younger students.
Akshita gained some experience during the pandemic, leading classes on various topics a few times each week on Zoom with young children of friends’ families in the area when schools shut down.
“She wants to…pursue coaching now,” Sampath said. “I think she will be a pretty good coach because she works really well with the kids and she has that knack.”
After months of virtual classes necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, a consensus emerged in Fairfax County that in-person learning is the ideal approach for students, but for the thousands of students who attend Stride Inc.‘s kindergarten-to-12th-grade schools, online classes are the norm, rather than the exception.
Stride says it has provided virtual learning to more than 2 million people since launching as K12 Inc. in 2000, but last Tuesday (May 18) represented a first for the Herndon-based company, as a dozen students and their families gathered at its corporate headquarters for the first-ever K12 National Spelling Bee.
“Spelling bees are a rite of passage for students everywhere, but it’s never been done online at this scale,” Stride CEO James Rhyu said in a statement.
The competition featured 12 students from nine states, including Virginia, who advanced to the finals after winning contests within their schools and regions. There were four finalists each at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, all of them from Stride’s online public school program.
Stride schools regularly offer activities and events for students to interact with classmates in person, including student clubs, field trips, and extracurricular activities, but the spelling bee championship gave students a chance to meet peers from around the country, Director of Corporate Communications Emily Riordan says.
“We are always looking for new ways to provide students with experiences that further enrich their academic pursuits, to give them space to demonstrate what they know, and to connect with each other,” she told Reston Now. “…The National Spelling Bee is one way we’re bringing together students from different schools, but who share the experience of attending public school online.”
Students at the event were required to wear face masks for its entirety, and they completed health screenings prior to arriving, according to a press release from Stride.
However, some students still attended virtually instead of traveling to Herndon, including Washington Virtual Academy (WAVA) third grader Ilyannie Gonzalez, who participated remotely from the other side of the country.
Ilyannie ultimately won the elementary school-level championship, beating out three other students who were attending in person after 18 rounds.
“Competing in the Spelling Bee is a dream come true for me,” she said before the competition started. “I love the challenge, and I am able to expand my vocabulary by learning words that are new to me. Most importantly, I would be making my family and my WAVA community proud.”
Like many other online education providers, Stride reported an increased demand for its services during the pandemic.
In an earnings presentation for the third-quarter of fiscal year 2021 on April 20, the company said that its enrollment had gone up from 122,100 students on March 31, 2020 to 185,300 students one year later, including 155,800 general education students.
In addition to hiring more than 1,300 teachers for the 2020-2021 school year, Stride rebranded in November to reflect its efforts to branch out into adult education and acquired two businesses with the goal of expanding its technology and healthcare career training offerings.
The past year hasn’t been entirely positive for Stride. According to NPR, the company was fired by Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida after technical issues led to a disastrous launch of the district’s virtual learning platform, and online charter schools in general have drawn criticism for students’ performance and a for-profit business model funded by taxpayer money, rather than tuition.
Still, Stride believes the past year has shown that virtual schools can be viable option for students looking for more flexibility than traditional public schools, and the National Spelling Bee suggests social interactions don’t have to be sacrificed in the process.
“Unlike a lot of their brick-and-mortar peers this past year, learning in an online setting is not new for these students, and neither is the opportunity to connect with their classmates and show off what they’ve learned to family and friends,” Rhyu said. “We’re proud of each of the Spelling Bee finalists, and we’re excited to celebrate with them here in Herndon.”
Photo courtesy Emily Riordan/Stride Inc.
Jae, who earned the trip to the national bee by winning the Fairfax County Bee, was ousted in the 2013 semifinals after he tripped up on the word “grundriss,” a word of German origin defined as a comprehensive outline of a science.
In 2012, as a fourth grader, Jae also made it to the semifinal round, tying for 22nd place. He was the youngest speller in the bee that year.
Jae is one of 13 three-time contestants at this year’s national bee, which will feature 281 spellers. Preliminary rounds begin at 8 a.m. Wednesday and will be broadcast on ESPN3. The semifinals and finals are on Thursday, also on ESPN3.
When not practicing bee-worthy words, Jae is a huge baseball fan. The 12-year-old plays Little League and travels with this father to see minor league baseball games. He has also participated in the gifted programs at the Davidson Institute Young Scholar program and the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth.
Jae is one of 14 contestants from Virginia in the national bee.
Reston Now will keep you updated on Jae’s results at the Scripps National Spelling Bee.
Photo: Jae Canetti at 2012 Scripps National Spelling Bee/File photo