Elikem Gato, 13, will again represent Bulloch County in the GAE Region 8 Spelling Bee after winning his school’s spelling bee, although this year there was no Bulloch County Spelling Bee.
This last word that Elikem, now a seventh-grader, spelled in Southeast Bulloch Middle School’s spelling bee on Jan. 9 was “bindi.” It’s not a long word, but certainly not an everyday word for many local middle-schoolers. The runner-up in the SEB Middle School bee was Elikem’s brother, Woelinam Gato, 11, who is in sixth grade.
One year ago, Elikem won the Bulloch County Spelling Bee, organized as it had been for years by local Georgia Association of Educators, or GAE, members. He and Woelinam carry on a family dynasty as spelling bee contenders started by their brother, Worlanyo, who is now in high school. After winning the Bulloch County bee in January 2018, Worlanyo won the Region 8 Spelling Bee that February and competed in the state bee.
“Elikem has been working really hard and he wants to at least be a runner-up at the region this year,” said Eric Gato, Ph.D., the spelling champions’ father.
Last year, Elikem was eliminated from the regional bee when just four or five young competitors remained.
Although controlling expectations with his “at least runner-up” goal, he of course wouldn’t mind winning, his father confirmed. He was on his way to help coach Elikem and Woelinam’s soccer team.
As reported in the past, Dr. Gato, an associate professor of biochemistry at Georgia Southern University, and his wife Vivian both work with their sons, sometimes making a game of it, as they practice spelling words and other memory skills.
Elikem had looked forward to a county level of competition, his father acknowledged.
“He really wished there was a county one, but he’s so thankful for the opportunity to represent the county,” Gato said. “That’s always a privilege.”
The GAE Region 8 Bee will be held Feb. 22 on Georgia Southern’s Armstrong campus in Savannah, beginning at 10 a.m.
Why no county bee?
One year ago, students representing 14 schools with middle and elementary grades competed in the 2019 Bulloch County Spelling Bee.
But the annual countywide, or “district” bee was not a Bulloch County Schools event, Assistant Superintendent for School Improvement Teresa Phillips noted in interview. Instead, it was a GAE event, coordinated for many years by late Ardrena Jackson, who taught for more than four decades as a paraprofessional in the school system, particularly at Sallie Zetterower Elementary School.
Jackson died in May 2018 at age 80.
Chianti Grant-Culver, who previously taught in the school system but now works in the university’s College of Education, coordinated the event both in 2018 and last year. But this year, Grant-Culver’s role was limited to trying to find someone else to coordinate the bee, she said in an email exchange with the Statesboro Herald.
“As I have accepted more professional and personal responsibilities, I am unable to serve in any other role than that of a consultant at this time,” Grant-Culver wrote.
She said that she had made several attempts at finding a coordinator and volunteers, but that without anyone to take it up, the 2020 bee had to be cancelled.
Grant-Culver sent principals of the schools emails, including monthly follow-ups, last fall noting that she was seeking a volunteer to coordinate the event, Phillips said.
Principals began expressing concerns to Phillips after they received these messages, and with no coordinator named by the time of a December principals’ meeting, most indicated that they would not be holding school spelling bees.
“Principals were really tormented about this,” Phillips said. “They said, you know, ‘We hate to spend the money and have a school bee and then it not go anywhere.’ That was their concern, and I completely understand those concerns. There was a lot of uncertainly.”
Entry fees are not paid to the GAE, which hosts the regional and state bees in Georgia, but to the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee organization, in return for the list of qualifying words. For the current school year, the fee per school – regardless of the number of students – was $165 if paid between May 1 and Oct. 15, or $240 if paid Oct. 16 - Dec. 20, 2019.
So the fee was not deciding factor, but the principals were reluctant to hold school-level bees if winning students couldn’t advance for lack of a district bee, Phillips said.
SEBMS goes alone
At Southeast Bulloch Middle School the decision was different, in part because of the past performance of the Gato brothers, SEBMS Principal Brad Boykin reported.
“We had some excellent spellers that competed and won the district last year, so we wanted to hold a spelling bee in our case just to represent our kids’ accomplishments, and we were going to recognize them at Honors Day,” he said this week. “So we did hold a spelling bee.”
About 30 students – representing the school’s 30 English-language arts classes, competed, he said.
One SEBMS English-language arts teacher, Vickki Carter, took the initiative to call a GAE state official and ask if the school could send its winner to another county school district’s bee, Boykin said. The GAE reportedly informed the school that this wasn’t allowed.
But instead, “if no other school had hosted a bee, so there were no other school winners, then we could submit our school winner as the district representative – not as the district winner, obviously – but as the district representative,” Boykin said.
So, Elikem Gato is preparing to go to the regional bee as his school’s winner and the district’s representative.
“And it made sense because he was the district winner and represented the district last year, so that speaks to his ability to win at that level,” Boykin added.
Back on for 2021
Meanwhile, both Grant-Culver and Phillips said that a middle school English-language arts teacher at Statesboro STEAM Academy, Veronica Corbett, has agreed to coordinate next year’s Bulloch County Spelling Bee. The GAE has public charter schools such as STEAM compete in district bees along with county schools and any homeschooled students who wish to participate.
“I will serve as a consultant next year as Ms. Corbett plans her first spelling bee,” Grant-Culver wrote.
With an email Friday evening, Corbett confirmed that she will be the coordinator. She also referred to STEAM as hosting the 2021 event, but said the school will not be the actual venue, which has yet to be determined.
“I'm happily accepting the role of being next year's Spelling Bee coordinator,” she wrote. “STEAM did not have a school-level spelling bee this year, but we will be hosting the district bee next year. I am excited about this opportunity and looking forward to sharing details with Bulloch County schools in the near future!”