Several Clarke County elementary and middle school students who had qualified to participate in the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Spelling Bee were surprised and disappointed upon arrival at the March 20th competition to learn that not only had the event already been underway for over an hour, but that they had been disqualified from participation for not showing up on time.
Several parents expressed anger at Monday’s Clarke County School Board meeting over the mix-up, which they say was the crowning blow in a series of missteps and foul-ups by Clarke County Public Schools regarding the event.
“If the high school football team had been on a winning streak with one game remaining before championships, and had forfeited that game because school administration had told them the wrong game time, you’d have a whole football team of parents up in arms,” one spelling scholar’s parent told the Clarke County School Board on Monday night. “Academics need to be taken seriously too.”
Three parents who addressed the School Board about the series of problems encountered with this year’s spelling bee – which they said ranged from failure by CCPS to provide students with access to a Scripps National Spelling Bee website where study guides word lists could be accessed and lack of communication regarding the schedule for the regional spelling bee – were incredulous that a Clarke County Public Schools senior school administrator assigned to coordinate the spelling bee could have made so many mistakes.
“Clarke County school administration had access to all of that [Scripps National Spelling Bee website] information once it had signed up for the bee. So, when did Clarke County sign up?” one parent said. “Late enrollments finished on December 16, 2011.”
The parents said that despite months of lead time that could have been used by students to properly prepare for the event, the CCPS senior administrator waited until the last minute to alert parents about when the young spellers needed to arrive for the competition.
“[The CCPS administrator] finally called at 2:00pm on the day of the event to tell me to have my kids at Daniel-Morgan Middle School at 6: 15 for a 7pm start and also to invite them to this [School Board] meeting to be recognized,” one parent said. “We arrived at the spelling bee at 6: 15 to find that the bee had already begun and my daughter was not allowed to participate.”
However, an apology letter from Clarke County Public Schools to the parents and students who were involved in the spelling bee said that while CCPS made its share of communication mistakes in the process, the blame for the event doesn’t rest entirely with Clarke County Public Schools. The letter, signed by Superintendent Dr. Michael Murphy included the following paragraph:
“In prior years the spelling bee has started at 7:00 p.m. On one occasion it began at 7:30 p.m.
Additionally, past practice also included advanced email communication regarding location, start time, and arrival time of participants sent from Regional Spelling Bee organizers to school division Directors of Curriculum & Instruction and building principals. Written notice from the Regional Spelling Bee organizers was never given to Clarke County as it had been in the past. Additional information leads us to believe that the change in start time was made late in the morning of the day of the event.”
Despite Dr. Murphy’s letter, two of the parents that addressed the School Board said that the a representative of the Community Foundation of the Northern Shenandoah Valley (CFNSV), the group who coordinated this year’s Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Spelling Bee, placed the blame fully on CCPS.
“[The CCPS administrator] advised the parents and students who were standing in the foyer, denied admission to the already ongoing Bee, that she was also unaware of the correct start time. At that point, the Regional Spelling Bee Coordinator, who was standing with the group, reminded [the CCPS administrator] of their telephone conversations the prior Thursday and Friday, in which the coordinator reminded [the CCPS administrator] that the start time would be 5:30 p.m.,” said one parent. “I witnessed [the CCPS administrator] acknowledging the accuracy of that statement.”
Another parent’s statement to the School Board contained a similar message;
“[The CFNSV representative] said she spoke with her Clarke County point of contact, [the CCPS administrator], on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of the previous week to confirm the start time of 6:00pm and that the five representatives and two alternates had all been informed of the 6:00pm pm start time.”
“It is worth noting that Warren, Winchester, and Frederick Divisions all reported on time, as did a single Clarke student,” said the parent. “The remainder of the Clarke arrivals had all been misinformed.”
CCPS Superintendent Dr. Murphy says that communications from CFNSV were poor and that at least one other participating school appeared had a similar spelling bee start-time confusion.
“Communication was messed up – this year and last – no blame – it is what it is and it was bad,” Dr. Murphy said in an e-mail response to questions about the mix-up. “In fact, last year Clarke and Warren counties were not even invited to attend the spelling bee. Last night I was told that [the CFNSV] bee coordinator, called and spoke with all three of our principals the Friday before the spelling bee. Either she is mistaken or I have three principals that have suddenly developed selective amnesia. They were not called.”
But Murphy also acknowledged that CCPS shares a portion of the blame for the problems surrounding the spelling bee.
“Yes, Clarke shares in some of the communication issues and challenges,” Murphy said. “We certainly were not paying attention to the details. We sent and gave our sincere apology; in writing and in person at the School Board meeting. In summary, we have apologized and are ready to move on. We will do better next year, and would be delighted if the Winchester Star would assume the role of coordination again.”
Murphy went on to question why the sponsoring organization has not also been publicly forthcoming with its version of the events that lead to the CCPS student lock-out at the spelling bee.
“CCPS has been very public about their ownership in the issue, Dr. Murphy said “and yet not a squeak from anyone else.”
Despite Murphy’s letter and apology, the parents who addressed the Clarke County School Board are still looking for additional answers and apparently aren’t buying CCPS’s official response.
“A letter that we received on Saturday from the CCPS Administrative Team stated, in part, that ‘Additional information leads us to believe that the change in start time was made late in the morning of the day of the event.’” one parent told the School Board. “That statement is not accurate. [The CCPS administrator] knew the start time, admitted that she had been reminded twice of the start time, and still failed to advise us of a change from 7:00pm to 5:30pm. That specifically caused the children involved to be locked out of the Bee.”
“It was nice that you made an apology to the kids,” stated another parent. “But the impulse here seems to be to want to sweep things under the carpet. If you keep sweeping things under the carpet the rug gets pretty dirty.”
Of course, the Clarke County children who worked so hard to understand the English language’s odd and arcane spelling rules will, in the long run, still benefit from having learned rules for when the letter “I” comes before “E” and adages like “when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking”. Even so, it’s still hard for a kid to work hard for a big event only to find out at the last minute that the grown-ups messed up.
“What have our children learned from this experience?” one parent asked the School Board. “I would imagine that they now know that the Spelling Bee was not a priority for CCPS and that an administrator failed to provide students access to the website, failed to give timely notice to five Division level winners of eligibility in the Regional Bee, and ultimately robbed them of an opportunity to participate in a National level event. I would also imagine that they might think twice before investing countless hours to study for an event that can so easily be cast aside by an administrator who cannot be trusted to follow through and give proper support to students.”
No School Board member publicly responded to spelling issue on Monday night.
Neither the Clarke County Public School administrator in charge of the local spelling bee participants nor the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Spelling Bee representative in charge of the regional spelling bee responded to questions about the spelling bee.