Young Saugerties spellers prepare for Schenectady competition

Donovan Barros and Austen Razek

On February 7, Donovan Barros and Austen Razek will represent Saugerties in the 35th annual Capital Region Spelling Bee at Proctors Theatre in Schenectady, an historic vaudeville house. Barros and Razek finished first and second in the Saugerties Spelling Bee on January 4.

Held in the library of the high school, the 2017 Saugerties Bee featured students from all four elementary schools and the junior high. Barros, an eighth grader at Saugerties Junior High, and Razek, a fifth grader at Cahill Elementary, emerged the winners from among the ten competitors who had survived both class and school-level bees.

This will be Barros’ second trip to Proctor’s. He won the district bee two years ago as a sixth grade student at Riccardi Elementary.


He’s been competing for even longer. “I started doing the spelling bee in fourth grade,” he said. “I don’t really know how I got into spelling, but I’ve loved to read for awhile.”

Colleen Ryan, an English teacher and bee coordinator for the junior high, said spelling bees were more than about competition. They’re about learning.

“It’s a venue to encourage children to study spelling, which is kind of an old-fashioned, good-old-American-apple-pie-values kind of thing that we’ve been doing for as long as I can remember,” she explaind. “I remember quite fondly being involved in spelling bees. When you do well, you get excited and you study.”

Students from across the state will be at Proctors on February 7, competing in a format aligned with the Scripps National Spelling Bee. Students will not only spell orally, but will also be judged on written spelling and vocabulary testing. The winner of the state tournament will move on to the national bee in Washington, D.C. later this year.

Ryan said Barros’ and Razek’s experience in Schenectady will be valuable to them. “The children I know who have gone on to Proctors are doing this for the experience,” she said. “What they’re going to get out of it. They really don’t expect to win the nationals. They’re going as far as they can. It’s an exciting journey. Many of them have never been to Proctors, let along Schenectady. They get to meet children from all over the state, which for them is very exciting.”

Lessons in sportsmanship are also an important part of the bee experience. “The thing I like the best is watching them grow,” Ryan said. “I first met Donovan when he was in fourth grade, and he was in the spelling bee. And he was a charming young man then, but I have watched him grow and mature. And I’ve watched him learn good sportsmanship and shake hands with someone whom he beat or someone who beat him.”

That’s what Ryan likes seeing. “I love that they study to be the best they can be, not necessarily to beat the next kid,” she said. “I like the camaraderie I see. This is the first place that you get to see junior-high children dealing with elementary-school children in a nice, polite, formal way. I like seeing that. I don’t think we do enough of it. It’s an unusual venue and I enjoy it very much.”

While Barros is a spelling-bee veteran, every step of the process outside of the class-level bee has been brand-new for Razek. “In fourth grade when I actually knew there was a spelling bee, I tried to get in but I got a word wrong,” he said. This time around, he didn’t.

“My mom taught me some strategies, not even just for spelling bees, but for my homework, too,” Razek said. “Sometimes I mess up on easy questions just because I guess I’m just human, I mess up. She taught me tricks on how to spell words. I usually mess up on vowels. When I learned that I was going to the district spelling bee I practiced a lot, but a lot of the time I got a lot of words wrong. My mom taught me tricks with vowels, so I guess my mom’s really good at spelling, too.”

Razek said that he hasn’t been nervous competing as a fifth grader because his fourth-grade classroom experience had given him a taste of the pressure of spelling in front of other people.

“I feel like I knew how the atmosphere was going to be,” he said. “I’ve been in front of stages before.”

Barros said he expects to feel butterflies in Schenectady. “I get very nervous when I get onstage at regionals,” he said. “There’s a lot of people.”

Barros, who said he’d like to study engineering as he moves through high school and college, uses an unusual technique to help him remember how words are spelled. “Sometimes I’ll say a word incredibly weirdly so I’ll remember how it’s spelled,” he said. “When I spell chocolate I always think of it as ‘choh-co-lah-tay.’”

Barros too credits his mother with helping him prepare for spelling bees. “She’s a big supporter of me doing this,” Barros said. “I’ll look at the words for awhile, then she’ll quiz me, and then I’ll look at the words I got wrong. When I was in regionals last time and had to spell ‘pistachio.’ I remembered it because I’d spelled it wrong before.”

Barros said each successive level of spelling-bee competition gives him a chance to meet kids with whom he might not ordinarily cross paths. “Last year I was sitting next to someone who had been homeschooled, and I don’t think I would have met him otherwise,” he said.

Success in spelling bees, Razek said, was mostly a matter of applying oneself. “You’ve always got to practice a lot,” he said. “Practice makes perfect, I guess. And you’ve got to be up for it too. Sometimes you just don’t feel like you want to do it. To be honest, I felt like the words were going to be way too hard for me to spell, but because I practices I got a lot of them right. Practice is the key.”

In addition to Barros and Razek, Brian Argueta (Saugerties JHS), Samuel Cushman (Riccardi), Molly Boek (Riccardi), Armani Castano (Mt. Marion), Mason Hagen (Mt. Marion), Nicholas Stinemire (Morse), Gracelynn VonAhnen (Morse) and Brendan Honzik (Cahill) competed in the district spelling bee.