Maybe Northside Middle School’s second-place finish at the Indiana Academic Spell Bowl Nov. 10 was written in the stars.
The eight-member team, consisting of three seventh-graders and five eighth-graders, adopted the team name “Coterie” leading up to the 28th annual state finals at Purdue University.
Strange as it may seem, that exact word, which means a circle of friends who share a common interest, came up during the spelling bee, contributing to Northside’s second-place finish in its class and fourth-place finish statewide.
It was Northside’s second-straight appearance. Last year, the team likewise finished second in its class and fourth overall.
“I’m so proud of this team,” said Sara Donathen-Smith, the local team’s instructor. “It’s been such a fun group from the beginning.”
Northside Middle School’s journey to the state finals began at the end of last season, when Donathen-Smith distributed official lists of more than 1,700 words the Indiana Association of School Principals chose as eligible for its spelling bee.
Members started studying during the summer. Then, as the weeks went by during the school year, Donathen-Smith tested the students, kept a running total of their performance and chose the cream of the crop to represent Northside in the year’s formal competitions.
“We’d practice with 80 words a week, she said. “We’d meet after school and before school to make sure they were ready.”
The team finished first out of 50 schools Oct. 23 in the Regional Spell Bowl, Donathen-Smith said. That earned the school a berth in the state finals, where the team bested seven out of the remaining eight teams to earn red medals.
The team initially tied for first place in its class with Discovery Middle School of Granger. However, various tiebreakers put Discovery over the top and led to that school taking top honors.
The competition was intense.
Each team sent one member at a time to the front of the room, where they sat with other competitors from that round to spell nine words that got progressively harder. After each round, the scores were tabulated and announced.
Northside spelled 68 out of 72 words correctly.
Ujwala Pamidimukkala, an eighth-grader, went first for Northside. She said later that she felt nervous, but was confident that her hours of study and memorization would pay off.
She memorized more than 1,700 words, even though in the end she knew she would only have to answer nine of them.
Pamidimukkala had no idea, which is why she had to be ready.
Reya Magan, a seventh-grader, said her mother helped administer spelling tests, which ultimately helped her learn the words. She said she separated words in different ways for studying purposes, such as by capitalization or hyphenation.
Sai Pamidighantam, an eighth-grader, was the last of Northside’s team members to take the hot seat. Her instructor, Donathen-Smith, said that was because the girl has “ice in her veins” and is not easily rattled by stressful situations.
Pamidighantam said knowing how to compete well in spelling bees means not just knowing how to spell words but also knowing the meaning of those words and how to break them down to their simplest forms. She said a true mastery of words expands a person’s vocabulary, which can make a difference on the verbal section of the SAT exam and help earn a student earn acceptance to a good college.
“It’s important to spell well, because that has a direct impact on communication skills,” said Donathen-Smith, who took over the local Spell Bowl team at the beginning of last year.
“And communication is so important.”