"Gargantuan" might be an appropriate word to kick off this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee.
The competition will be super-sized because of a new wild-card program that provided a path to the bee for kids who didn't qualify by conventional means and were willing to pay their own way.
Scripps was willing to allow the bee to nearly double in size, and that's exactly what happened: There will be 519 spellers in this year's bee, up from 291 last year.
That means some changes to the already packed bee week schedule: Now, there will be an extra day of spelling, with competitors taking the stage for three days instead of two. Previously, after the high-stakes written spelling and vocabulary test that largely determines the top 50 or so spellers who make the finals, competitors had the rest of the day to go sightseeing in Washington and blow off steam. Now, they'll go straight from the test to the stage, where each speller will get one word the first day and each remaining speller will get another word the second day.
"I think the only drawback might be that jam-packed schedule for three straight days," said Mira Dedhia, who finished third in last year's bee. "It's just a lot of sitting on stage and waiting because it's a much larger pool of kids."
The wild-card program was open to anyone who won a school-level spelling bee. Scripps officials weren't sure how many would apply, in part because of the price tag: Spellers who get wild cards have to pay a $750 entry fee and fund their own travel and lodging at the convention center outside Washington where the bee will be held the week of May 28. Sponsors cover those costs for spellers who win their regional bees.
Nonetheless, 855 kids applied for wild cards, and 241 were accepted. Spellers who'd been to nationals before got top priority, with 39 recipients falling into that category. They were followed by spellers who were running out of eligibility — the bee is open to kids through the 8th grade — and, after that, spellers who got in their applications earliest.
Previously, spellers had to win at the regional level to gain entry. There are roughly 275 regions around the country, including a handful overseas.
The wild-card program, known as "RSVBee," was meant to provide a lifeline to spellers who happen to live in highly competitive regions. A quarter of the 11 million spellers who participate in the Scripps program are concentrated in just eight regions. The result is that kids who were talented enough to make the national finals were sometimes frozen out of the bee altogether because they were tripped up at regionals by other elite spellers.
"RSVBee has accomplished what we intended by leveling the playing field for national finals qualification, especially for students participating in large regional bees," said Paige Kimble, the bee's executive director.
Despite her concerns about the schedule, Mira, a 14-year-old ninth-grader who is now coaching four spellers, is a big proponent of the wild cards. One of Mira's students — Enya Hubers of Burlington, Ontario, Canada — finished inside the top 50 in last year's bee but saw her path to return closed off because she is home-schooled and didn't have a sponsor this year. Enya got a wild card to return.
The program "provides a lot of opportunities to people who wouldn't have it otherwise, whether they be home-schooled or just from a very competitive or large regional bee," Mira said.