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Raleigh County spells dominance

Chris Dorst
Raleigh County native Elizabeth Koh holds her 2011 Gazette-Mail Regional Spelling Bee first-place trophy. Koh is a two-time regional spelling bee champion. Her brother, Matthew, also won in 2010. Raleigh County boasts 11 spelling bee champions, seven of which have come in the last seven years. St. Francis De Sale Prinicipal Karen Wynne doesn't think there's anything in the water in Raleigh County, but she does think success breeds success. "I think it inspires some to try and achieve that goal themselves," she said.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When it comes to winning spelling competitions for students in southern West Virginia, dominance can be spelled R-A-L-E-I-G-H.

Students from Raleigh County have won the Gazette-Mail Regional Spelling Bee more times since 1976 than challengers from any other single county, including eight of the last nine years.

Eleven times the regional winner has hailed from Raleigh County. Kanawha County has the second most victories with six, but it's been 15 years since then-South Charleston Junior High student Alex Carter won the title two years in a row.

Karen Wynne is principal at St. Francis De Sale, a Beckley-based private school and former home of two-time reigning spelling bee champ Elizabeth Koh. Her brother, Matthew, won in 2010.

Wynne doesn't think there's anything in the water that makes children in Raleigh County such prodigious spellers, but she does think students take the bee seriously.

While they attend different schools, both public and private, Wynne said Raleigh County spellers still know each other from participating in extracurricular activities.

"It's that little healthy competition between them," she said.

There's sacrifice involved in becoming a true spelling bee master, Wynne said. She thinks Elizabeth in particular worked very hard throughout the year to continually bolster not only her spelling ability, but also her understanding of the English language.

"It's not something you can do once school starts in September or August," Wynne said. "It's something you have to be working on all the time."

While Wynne said the school doesn't do anything in particular to prepare spellers, she remembers trying to trick Elizabeth with words she never imagined the eighth-grader would know. A student can be a talented speller, but she thinks effort and self-motivation can carry a bee participant over the top.

It carried Elizabeth on back-to-back trips to the Scripps National Spelling Bee near Washington, D.C. Although she did not make it past the preliminary rounds of the extremely competitive bee, she and other spellers are always featured on ESPN and its affiliate channels.

Highlighting the academic success of a Raleigh County student certainly has an impact on other local children, Wynne said.

"I think it inspires some to try to achieve that goal themselves," she said. One middle school student in particular has spoken with her about Elizabeth's achievement.

"She said, 'I saw that girl go all the way to Washington, and that's what I want to do,'" the principal said.

That student and other elementary and middle school students from 23 counties will have that chance if they advance to the Gazette-Mail Regional Spelling Bee, scheduled for March 16 at Capital High School.

The event is co-sponsored by the Higher Education Policy Commission and will be televised by WSAZ's MyZ TV.

The SMART529 program again will award the regional champion with a $2,500 college savings account.

Participating counties each send two students to the regional competition. Counties determine their own method for deciding which students attend, but most hold bees at the school and county levels to narrow the field and send their county champion and runner-up.

To help students prepare for the event, the Gazette-Mail has published a "Bee Prepared" study guide. Copies will be sent to county spelling coordinators, who will distribute them to participating schools. 

The guide is full of tips and words students might come across as they study to become the next spelling bee champion.

Wynne isn't sure that student will come from Raleigh County again. But after 15 years of leading her school and seeing children head to the bee, she knows that anything can happen.

"You never know. You just never know," she said.

Reach Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher@dailymailwv.com. Follow him on twitter at Dave_Boucher1.


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