Santa Lucia Elementary student Eduardo Garcia gets a congratulatory hug from teacher Jensen Hall after leaving the stage during round three. (Photos by Sean Roney)

SALINAS VALLEY — Dozens of students and their family and school staff supporters from South Monterey County were among the hundreds of people in attendance at the 36th Annual Monterey County Fourth and Fifth Grade Spelling Bee.

The Feb. 15 event was hosted by the Lyceum of Monterey County and held at San Benancio Middle School outside Salinas.

“I have been nervous this entire time,” said Jensen Hall, a fifth-grade teacher at Santa Lucia Elementary in King City, who was present to watch one of her students. “Every time he went up, I would be ‘I can’t breathe, don’t talk, nobody make a noise.’ It was very exciting and I’m very proud.”

Alejandra Uribe, a staff member from Arroyo Seco Academy in Greenfield, went up to give pep talks to the students from her school between rounds.

“I’m just telling them to have fun and reminding them how far they’ve gotten,” Uribe said. “Just do their best and reminding them that we’re proud of them.”

Not only did some students travel to Salinas with their families, but multiple schools also sent buses.

Greenfield Union School District sent a bus for students, family and staff to travel together. The district sent four schools’ worth of finalists and alternates, the largest contingent from South Monterey County.

“We know that transportation can be an issue for some of our families,” said Kristen Panteleon, assistant principal at Mary Chapa Academy in Greenfield.

In order to support those students and their families, the district coordinated a bus trip.

“Everyone who participated, we invited their families to attend as well. We had a strict bus route and schedule to get us here on time,” Panteleon said.

She said Greenfield had students review the numbers, that they were one of more than a hundred from their campus who were finalists.

“You add that up and think about all the students in Monterey County, and just to have so many students up there in the fifth round representing Greenfield was so amazing,” Panteleon said.

Cristian Barajas was the representative from San Ardo Elementary School. He was eliminated in the second round after having spelled “gazillion” in round one.

King City competitors included Andrea Rios and Eduardo Garcia from Santa Lucia Elementary School. Rios was stumped in the first round by “rhinoceros,” while Garcia made it to round three, stumped by the word “spontaneous” after spelling “sustainable” and “business.”

Greenfield competitors included Vincent Calderon and Eva Montes from Arroyo Seco Academy; Royal Murray, Kenneth Pajas and Levi Vallejah from Cesar Chavez Elementary School; Galilea Almanza Romero and Dulce Castulo Naja from Mary Chapa Academy; and Hector Ramirez and Angel Gaeta from Oak Avenue Elementary School.

Montes made it to round four, having been challenged with the words “llama,” “hilarious,” “scissors” and “lieutenant.” Pajas quickly spelled “gecko” in the first round, but was stopped at “expression.” Vallejah was challenged by the word “cuckoo.”

Romero made it to the fourth round, spelling “platypus,” “blizzard,” “multimedia” and “sufficient.” Naja spelled “murmur” and “considerable.” Ramirez was stopped at the second round after spelling “succumb” and “obligation,” but successfully appealed by spelling the word “crediting,” and was stopped in the third round with “philosopher.” Gatea spelled “mutation,” “bellyache” and “condemn.”

The two top spellers from South Monterey County were Greenfield students, each making it within the top nine spellers after five rounds.

Calderon went through the first four rounds by spelling “supercede,” “crucial,” “artificial” and “hygienist,” but was blocked from progressing by the word “Hawaiian.” Murray also cruised through the first four rounds, spelling “tenacious,” “educational,” “gooey” and “anticipation.” Her fifth round was stopped when she had to spell “symmetric.”

“I got nervous,” Romero said. “You have pressure to get the word right and get to the next round and you just try your best.”

When asked about her fourth round word, “sufficient,” she said, “I knew that it was a really hard word I wouldn’t get.”

She added she felt proud of her placement in the bee, and that her brother, father and mother were present to watch.

“I was trying to think of “symmetry,” but I forgot how to spell that too,” said Murray, who was the first finalist for Cesar Chavez Elementary and made it to the fifth round, where she was hit with the word “symmetric.”

She broke words into roots to help spell, which she said helped earlier with the word “anticipation.”

“I was thinking of the root word, ‘anticipate,’” Murray explained.

“I was really nervous at first,” said Garcia of his spelling bee experience. “Technically, it was really easy at first, but when I came to round three, when I heard ‘spontaneous,’ there were two words, so I tried one and I got it wrong.”

He said when he heard the words for his first two rounds, his reaction was, “Oh wow, those are really easy.”

“I was bummed for him because I know he wanted to go really far, but I was so proud because he did really well and it was a tricky word,” said Hall of Garcia’s finish.

The words were a mixture of popular words and esoteric dictionary words, ranging from “affective” to “chipotle” and even “chiliburger.”

The first two eliminations in round one came from the words “falafel” and “feisty.” After the first round, words were ones students had not had the opportunity to practice from a word list. The first elimination in round two was from the word “approach.” Numerous appeals were made after the first round and some in later rounds due to the ambiguous sound of some letter combinations, such as in the words “comments” and “commence.”

Garcia said he practiced everyday for at least an hour to lead to his top finish at his school bee, but stepped it up to as much as three hours of practice everyday when preparing for the countywide bee.

Calderon said he practiced everyday.

“I had to write down each word three times,” he said of his routine leading up to the school spelling bee, where he became champion of Arroyo Seco Academy.

While that word list was 60 words, Calderon said he stepped up the practice for the 105-word list for the county bee.

“‘Artificial’ I knew, ‘hygienist’ I wasn’t very confident in,” said Calderon of the words he spelled. He said the double “I” in “Hawaiian” tripped him up in the fifth round.

“I pretty much practiced everyday,” Murray said. “Sometimes I’d look it over and spell it afterward, or I’d have my siblings help me by saying the word then I spelled it.”

Her practices consisted of “practicing in the spelling bee way, I’d say the word, then spell it.”

“It’s been really exciting,” said Hall of the spelling bee process. “Once we started the first school competition, we were practicing in class.”

“We’ve been making sure they were going over everything on the bus,” Uribe said of the practice sessions up to the morning of the spelling bee.

Murray said she was practicing as recently as when her family first arrived to the venue.

Denise Nahhas was student-president of Santa Lucia Elementary and was in the audience to support her fellow students, as well as to be available as an alternate.

“I’m proud of him, and I hope he does win because it would be really great. He’s representing Santa Lucia,” Nahhas said of Garcia during the second round. She added that it felt great to watch fellow King City students on the stage.

“For me it’s pretty exciting,” said Jorge Almanza about watching Romero’s finish. “She got pretty far and we’re proud of her.”

“I felt proud that they were able to come this far too,” said Murray of her fellow Greenfield students.

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Sean Roney is a freelance reporter for King City Rustler and Salinas Valley Tribune, a unified publication of Greenfield News, Soledad Bee and Gonzales Tribune. He covers general news for the Salinas Valley communities in South Monterey County.


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