School is the last place you would expect to find young students on a nice Saturday morning but dozens of students from across the state gathered at a school in West Philadelphia to participate in the annual Philadelphia Tribune/Scripps 2016 Regional Spelling Bee.

The competition at the School of the Future, 4021 Parkside Ave., first began with a “spelldown” that involved fifth-graders from city public schools competing for a chance to advance to the regional match and face students in grades 6 through 8.

One by one each fifth-grader approached the microphone to spell his or her assigned word from the pronouncer. Despite their heroic efforts, the numbers were whittled down as only one could advance to the regional. In the end, it was Omaury Negron who correctly spelled “chronology” and advanced to the next phase of the competition.

“I feel so happy, I feel so accomplished,” said Negron, who attends John Moffet Elementary School in North Philadelphia.

“I can’t believe I just did this,” he said as his proud parents stood beside him.

“I prepared for over five months, I have been preparing for this moment for a long time and I finally did it,” Negron said.

For the regional competition, the auditorium stage again filled with contestants, each hoping to take home a trophy and advance to the nationals in Washington, D.C.

Hopes were dashed slowly as the stage emptied with each misspelled word by a contestant. Some were undone by relatively simple words such as ‘physique” and “exuberant.”

Eventually there were only three contestants left: Tiphanie Chang, 13, the defending regional champion from Philadelphia Academy Charter School; Nathan Philip, 11, a student at Baldi Middle School; and Saif Siddiquee, 13, who attends Penn Alexander.

The showdown was fierce as each contestant would not give up easy as word after word — some causing the competitors to pause to visualize the word before spelling it out.

At such times the audience held its collective breath in suspense and sighed in relief when a word was correctly spelled or sympathetic groans if it was not.

The word “pizzicato” shot down Chang, ending her bid to retain the champion title. The word refers to a note or passage played by plucking the stings of an instrument, such as a violin.

“It’s hard work but I feel like I studied less this year because I felt like I knew the words,” said Chang, who is already making preparation to compete next year and beyond.

With Chang eliminated, it left Siddiquee and Philip in a face-off. Each held their ground round after round, but it was the word “eocene” that would decide the competitors’ fate.

When the smoke cleared, it was Siddiquee who carried away the trophy as Philip misspelled the word that denotes a period of the Earth’s geological evolution.

“I felt nervous because I knew I couldn’t have kept spelling the words on and on. I knew at some point I was going to have to give in,” said runner-up Philip.

Siddiquee had his doubts about surviving the barrage of words.

“At first I thought she [Chang] was going to win because I saw how confident she was and then I saw how he [Philip] was spelling really well so I kind of lost confidence,” Siddiquee said with trophy in hand alongside his mother, Romana.

Siddiquee said he prepared by waking up each morning and studying for a few hours after breakfast. He also received help from both parents.

“I feel great right now,” said Penn Alexander student.

Aside from the spelling bee trophy, Siddiquee received a Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the official dictionary for the Scripps National Spelling Bee, and will head to the next round in Washington, D.C.

The Philadelphia Tribune along with AmeriHealth Caritas and Wells Fargo will pay for his transportation and a week’s accommodation for him and an escort to attend the national competition in June.

“I think it’s an exciting and important time in the life of a student in our public schools and it’s good for our school district,” said Robert Bogle, CEO of the Philadelphia Tribune.

“Our kids have an opportunity to come out and present and demonstrate the skills that they have learned during the time they have been in our schools and it gives them a chance to excel and be proud of what they have achieved,” he said.

William Hite, superintendent of Philadelphia School District, said activities such as the spelling bee were important for the participating students in helping them to develop poise and confidence.

“I think anytime we ask young people to stand up in front [an audience] and give an effort, and we ask them to do that in public, it’s very important,” he said.

This year’s pronouncer was the Rev. Lorina Marshall-Blake, president of Independence Blue Cross Foundation. The judges were Linette W. Black, the retired CEO of HealthRight Inc.; Larry Skinner, senior sales executive at Conversion Technologies International; and Claudette Wardlaw, a former teacher and Temple University graduate.

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