WASHINGTON — Omahan Immanuel Soh finished third in the Midwest Spelling Bee after tripping over the word “analogous,” but his family says that slip was simply the result of nerves in the bright lights of a big competition.
“He knew the word,” his father, Kenneth Soh, said with a laugh.
Now the 13-year-old is headed for an even bigger stage and brighter lights — the Scripps National Spelling Bee, which will be supersized this year because of a new wild-card program for kids who didn’t qualify through conventional means and are willing to pay their own way.
Also competing at the national contest will be Omahan Stephanie Lewis, an eighth-grader at Marrs Magnet Center who finished first in the Midwest Spelling Bee.
Soh, who is home-schooled, is happy to have a second chance through that wild-card system, saying it’s an opportunity to put his faith in God and work hard. His family has started making plans for sightseeing on their trip to the nation’s capital later in May.
As for why he enjoys spelling, Soh said it’s something he’s naturally skilled at.
“I don’t have to worry about spell-check all the time,” he said. “It’s pretty useful.”
Dubbed RSVBee, the new wild-card system is intended to address fairness concerns regarding qualification for the finals, Bee spokeswoman Valerie Miller said.
“The speller population is unevenly distributed,” Miller said. “In some areas, to qualify for the national finals, a speller must compete against the best from more than 1,000 schools. In other areas, to qualify for the national finals, spellers need only to take on 25 schools.”
Miller said the wild-card system serves as an alternate path for students who came close in their regional bees, for former national finalists who were unable to participate in or didn’t win their regional bees this year, and for students who live in areas not served by a regional bee.
Scripps was willing to let the bee almost double in size, and that’s exactly what happened: There will be 519 spellers in this year’s bee, up from 291 last year.
That means some changes to the already packed bee week schedule: Now there will be an extra day of spelling, with competitors taking the stage for three days instead of two.
More than 850 kids applied for the wild-card program. The 241 who were accepted will have to pay a $750 entry fee and cover their travel and lodging at a convention center outside Washington, where the bee will be held the week of May 28.
For those who qualify through the traditional process, the sponsor pays the travel expenses for the speller and one parent or guardian. There is no participation fee for those who win their sponsored regional event.
“Regardless of the path they took to get there, every speller will have an equal opportunity to win,” Miller said.
Charles Johanningsmeier, whose daughters Emma and Grace represented Nebraska at the bee in 2010 and 2014, said he has some concerns about the change.
He said he appreciates that populous, highly competitive markets with great schools, like New York or Los Angeles, can produce a lot of great spellers.
A third-place finisher in one of those markets may be a better speller than a speller in a smaller market or a speller with a less robust sponsor, like a small home-schooling cooperative, he said.
“What they’re saying is this allows that third-place kid to get in,” he said.
But the system is “incredibly biased” toward people with money, he said.
Someone who loses a regional bee can apply and get in — if they can afford the $750 entry fee, plus the trip to Washington, D.C.
“I think they need to figure out a better way to address this because I can just see this proliferating,” he said. “There are a lot of parents heavily invested in their child being at the National Spelling Bee, and if, essentially, you can just buy your way in, then it’s just one more example of money buying you privilege.”
Another issue that’s overlooked, he said, is that losing can be good for a kid.
“Emma was disappointed; she lost one year in the regional bee, and then she won in her eighth-grade year,” he said. “And, yeah, you’re sad, but isn’t that kind of how we learn and how we get a little tougher as adults? Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose.”
This report includes material from the Associated Press.