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The Ithaca Public Education Initiative hosts 18th annual Adult Spelling Bee

From left: Karen Trible, Mark Chao and Suzanne Nussbaum of the IthacaSTEM Hexaplexes present the correct spelling of the word “littoral” to win the 18th annual Adult Spelling Bee.
By Sara Kim and Will Uhl

A hush falls over the gymnasium.


Eight teams scribble furiously, bee-themed antennae bouncing to and fro. By comparison, previous challenges like “dodecahedron” and “antebellum” look like softballs.

After thirty seconds, the audience applauds.

The IthacaSTEM Hexaplexes come out on top as the only team to finish the first round without a single mistake: S-U-P-E-R-L-A-T-I-V-E-L-Y.

With four intense rounds and a final battle royale, 32 teams competed for the Fuzzy Bee trophy at the Ithaca Public Education Initiative’s 18th annual Adult Spelling Bee held on March 6 at Ithaca High School’s Wellness Center Gym. Free and open to the public, the community event raises funds for teachers in the Ithaca City School District.

Each team comprised three team members who worked together to write down the word before the buzzer. This year followed a new format based on Montana’s Bozeman School foundation that was designed to speed up the pace and challenge teams to race and write the correct spelling simultaneously instead of taking turns.

Jennifer Biloski, chairwoman of the spelling bee committee, said this year’s format will not only speed up the pace but also address the issue of fairness.

In previous years, the spelling bee was conducted in a way where teams had to spell out the word verbally with each team receiving a different word, as a result, members complained that some words were easier to spell than others.

“This year, we have changed the format, so the pronouncer will give a word and every single team will write the same word down on a whiteboard,” Biloski said.

Mark Chao, a member of the winning team the IthacaSTEM Hexaplexes, said the new format provides more than one opportunity to advance to the next round.

“And it’s nice that you get eliminated twice,” Chao said. “So if you get unlucky with some kind of really hard word, you have another chance.”

Suzanne Nussbaum, also a member of the IthacaSTEM Hexaplexes, said the secret to winning is having luck and language.

“I’ve never been in a spelling bee before, but I think we have the secret weapon, which is that, I’m a Latin teacher and I’ve also studied Greek,” she said. “And it looks like Mark [Chao] took years of Latin and Greek also.”

She said the new format was fair in the sense that every team had the same set of words.

The event is the IPEI’s largest annual fundraiser.

“This is their signature fundraising event. Last year, they gave out over ninety thousand dollars in teacher grants,” Biloski said.

She said these grants help improve education for children attending schools within the Ithaca City School District.

The IPEI is a nonprofit organization that works to raise money for the Ithaca City School District and its teachers, according to the IPEI website.

Christine Sanchirico, IPEI’s executive director, said in a press release the grants allow teachers to connect ICSD schools with a diverse community of students.

Svante Myrick, Mayor of Ithaca, said the IPEI is important to the community because it helps raise money and contribute toward Ithaca’s education programs.

He said with the funds provided by the IPEI, teachers have the ability to purchase extra classroom supplies, to take students on educational field trips and create a special learning environment that goes above and beyond the base minimum requirements of being a teacher.

“The IPEI helps teachers take on special projects and do special events that otherwise wouldn’t be possible,” Myrick said. “It makes the difference between a great school and an excellent one when teachers have the ability and flexibility to go above and beyond.”


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