Tutoring Students to Compete in the NYC Spelling Bee

By Anthony Paradiso

The New York City Spelling Bee is a wonderful annual event that showcases the skills of elementary and middle school students in New York City year after year. This year’s NYC Spelling Bee took place on March 14 and 15 at the Academy of St. Joseph’s in the Village and 125 students participated each day. However, just two of those students, a seventh-grader named Lora Wu and an eighth-grader named Vale Esposito were chosen as the two champions and will now compete in the National Spelling Bee in Washington.

Wu and Esposito would not have been the last boy and girl standing in a competition that included over 350 participants without being very smart on their own. But Maya Angelou is quoted as saying “Alone, all alone nobody but nobody/ Can make it out here alone.” This saying rings true when looking at what a non-profit educational organization called “Scholar Skills for Stars” does to help students in the five boroughs of NYC get the tutoring and reading skills that they need to realize their academic potential.

PRESIDENT AND FOUNDER OF SCHOLAR SKILLS FOR STARS Brian Vieira stands next to New York City Spelling Bee champion Laura Wu.

CHAMPION OF THE NEW YORK CITY SPELLING BEE, VALE ESPOSITO (an eighth grader) holds the First place Trophy with his parents at Academy of St. Joseph’s in Greenwich Village. Photos courtesy of Brian Vieira.

Scholar Skills for Stars was founded in 2017 by Brian Vieira, a former high school teacher, who currently serves as their president. Their goal is to work with schools and families who could not afford “long-term sustained tutoring” and Vieira described why he started the non-profit (under the umbrella of Scholar Skills Inc.) that helps young students realize their potential.

“I taught in one of the most devastated communities [in Brooklyn] where there were a lot of low-income families. I wanted to work with [many] different communities and it was out of that, where I found the passion and said ‘we have to do something different.’”

The process that ends with students becoming champions of the NYC Spelling Bee takes six months. It begins in September, when schools can register for the National Spelling Bee online and receive materials that they use to prepare their students. These schools then hold in-house spelling bees which move on into District spelling bees and the next step after that is the regional level (the NYC Spelling Bee) but students looking to compete at this level, needed to give a little extra effort this year.

In early March, Scholar Skills for Stars held a webinar for hundreds of district champions where they learned Latin and Greek word parts because analyzing the meaning of English words that derive from Latin and Greek was made part of the spelling bee curriculum. Adding Latin and Greek vocabulary analysis was something that Vieira and his organization was asking students to do for the first time, but the question is why? Vieira explains: “We talk about memorizing words as being a good thing but most of those end up in their short term memory. What if we prepared them for a vocabulary test that would become building blocks for the rest of their lives, so that they could decode thousands of words. Our goal was to turn the spelling bee into a literacy campaign and to fuse the memorization with analysis.”

It was a long process for the students, the youngest of whom was in fourth grade, but it was a challenge that excited the students rather than stopped them from trusting the new vision put forth by Scholar Skills and Mr. Vieira.

Hundreds of students across the city, Westchester, and Long Island practiced their vocabulary skills at home and attended webinars that prepared them for the NYC Spelling bee, but only two ended up as champions. However, this should take nothing away from the fact that every participant was a winner for having the courage to learn something like Latin and Greek to take part in this year’s NYC Spelling Bee. This is a sentiment that Vieira echoed.

“I spoke to a parent this morning whose child didn’t win, but I asked them about their experience and they told me he really enjoyed the entire process from his school [spelling bee] all the way through the intermediate test. She kept saying he was happy he got so far and he really enjoyed the process.”

We win some, we lose some, but we all win when we learn from the mistakes we make along the way. The way, or the process is what Scholar Skills for Stars and its President, Brian Vieira believes every young public school kid should have the ability to take part in, so that they can become better students and more prepared for life in the 21st century.