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Debbie Lister Headshot

DC Corporate Types Help Inner City Kids Learn to Spell

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"G-Y-P-S-Y". Five letters with little significance to most people, but I will always remember the word that knocked me out of the Fawn Hollow Elementary School fourth grade spelling bee. I felt a reminiscent wave of anxiety and trepidation as I brought a team of corporate volunteers to compete in a mock spelling bee with the students at the Higher Achievement Program, which develops academic skills, behaviors, and attitudes in academically motivated and under-served middle school children.

Spelling Bees have been in the public eye lately, with movies Akeelah and the Bee and cult documentary Spellbound, the Scripps National Spelling Bee on primetime TV, and even Broadway getting in on the act with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. So how was it that I was able to channel my inner fourth-grade self, tap into the spelling bee movement, engage professionals with the community and help underserved kids all at the same time?

Each year Higher Achievement holds a city-wide spelling bee for their five centers in DC. When our volunteers participated this year, the program's "scholars" were the ones actually running the bee: they were the judges, the timers, the emcees and the audience. I had the unique opportunity of managing the process from start to finish -- working with Higher Achievement to build the day, recruiting the volunteers, managing the logistics and ensuring each volunteer was well equipped and well prepared to work with the scholars.

In partnership with Higher Achievement, we created a "Mock Spelling Bee." This experience enabled the kids to observe and learn the intricacies of a live spelling bee. And it was our volunteers who were misspelling words, giving the scholars an opportunity to be on a level-playing field with caring adults who were taking an active role in their lives. In preparation for the activity, I sent an email that included all of the possible words that would be used in the mock bee. Words like "acquaintance" and "camouflage" aren't necessarily difficult, but busy professionals usually rely on spell check and editors.

This "mock spelling bee" -- in addition to affording me the opportunity to reconnect with my inner fourth-grader -- was powerful on three levels:

First, the middle school scholars had the unique opportunity to experience the intricacies of a spelling bee -- something they may have seen in a movie, but might not have experienced themselves. It was more than a rehearsal, and it prepared them for their big night on stage in the spotlight.

Second, the corporate volunteers caught a glimpse into the experiences of Washington, DC middle school students. As a team, they got out of the office, stepped into a Washington, DC middle school and spent the afternoon with 25 terrific scholars. They redefined teambuilding and enjoyed every minute.

Third, Higher Achievement was able to offer this opportunity to their scholars without dedicating staff time -- they were free to concentrate on running the organization and furthering the mission of their organization.

One week after this mock spelling bee, many of the volunteers, including myself, attended the city-wide spelling bee, hosted by Higher Achievement in a big auditorium two blocks from the Capitol. The scholars were in their best outfits, nervous but prepared, and supported by the community.

The winner? A six-grader from Ward One. Small for his size and standing on his toes to reach the microphone he confidently spelled "anachronism" -- much more difficult than gypsy.

Debbie Lister is a Program Manager at the CityBridge Foundation. The CityBridge Foundation is the private, family foundation of David G. and Katherine B. Bradley. Located in Washington, DC, CityBridge focuses on accelerating education reform and managing innovative civic engagement. www.citybridgefoundation.org

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