Sandwich eighth-grader spells way into Scripps National Spelling Bee

Cerelia Lesko wins local spelling bee, heads to Washington, D.C., in May

MALTA – Cerelia Lesko, your word is “Scripps.”

Can you use it in a sentence? The Sandwich Middle School eighth-grader sure can, and she can relate it to herself, as she is headed to the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C., after beating out 18 competitors to win the DeKalb County Spelling Bee on Saturday.

The strongest spellers from 10 local schools sat onstage in Kishwaukee College’s auditorium, eagerly awaiting what would become a nearly three-hour battle royale for the top spot. Over the course of 21 rounds – split up between traditional “say it, spell it, say it” sections and the less frequent vocabulary recognition portions that were introduced four years ago – the eighth-grader was the only participant to never misspell a word.

Cerelia almost did, however.

“Symposium,” she said afterward, referring to the word she spelled to advance through the 20th round. “I was going to spell it with an ‘i’ at first, then switched in the ‘y.’ ”

Cerelia exuded quiet confidence throughout the competition. According to her parents, Jim and Neikeia Lesko, that confidence was the result of hours and hours of after-school study time devoted to slowly combing through a massive list of potential words.

“Every day after school, from the time she got out of school until bedtime,” Jim Lesko said.

“15,000 words,” added Kat Sgiers, Sandwich Middle School speech and drama teacher, who doubles as a spelling bee sponsor. “She wrote them over and over.”

That might sound like a lot of work, but Cerelia was making up for lost time. Last year, as a seventh-grader, Cerelia had managed a solid sixth-place finish at the county bee despite going in blind – she hadn’t been aware there even was a list of words to study.

This year, Jim Lesko said he “kind of figured” his daughter would take the top spot, although Neikeia Lesko said it still was nerve-wracking.

“As much time as she put in ...” Jim Lesko said.

Now, Cerelia will begin putting in even more time, preparing for the annual Scripps spelling bee in the nation’s capital. Jim Lesko said she plans to use the same approach for the nationwide contest, but if she doesn’t have enough time to write and rewrite each and every word, she said she would study the way the languages of origin typically construct their words.

On her way to the top spot, Cerelia faced some tough competition. Her fiercest competitor was Daniel Martin, a 13-year-old from Sycamore Middle School. Martin was neck-and-neck with Lesko through 19 rounds, but he misspelled “sylph” in the 20th round, making the mistake that Cerelia had narrowly avoided: subbing in an “i” where a “y” belonged. 

Meanwhile, Daniel’s schoolmate, Liliana Jennings, fell in the 13th round on the word “trowel.” Clinton Rosette Middle School student Grace Thurman made it to the 12th round but stumbled on “follies,” and Fiona Arado of St. Mary School in Sycamore misspelled “impossible” in the 14th round.

Cerelia will represent Sandwich Middle School and DeKalb County in D.C. from May 26 to June 1.

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