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May 28, 2024, 2:54 p.m.
Audience & Social

How to b-e-e of use: Signal Cleveland hosts second annual community spelling contest

“Listening is great, and talking to community members is great, but we also have to figure out how to be of use.”

It’s the most momentous (and adorable) week of the year for orthographists in the U.S. — especially for the 245 students ages 8 to 15 descending on National Harbor, Maryland for the 96th Scripps National Spelling Bee.

For more than a dozen children in Cleveland’s Central neighborhood, though, the big day came about a week ago, when nonprofit news outlet Signal Cleveland hosted its own second annual spelling bee in a project that grew out of organizers’ desire to actively support and be a useful part of the local community. Launched in 2022, Signal Cleveland is the first newsroom in the Signal Ohio network, which is billed as “one of the largest local nonprofit news startups in the country, with more than 20 staff and more than $15 million raised so far.” The network is backed by the American Journalism Project, while Signal Cleveland’s major local funders also include the Cleveland Foundation1 and the Visible Voice Charitable Fund. (The network’s second newsroom, Signal Akron, launched last December.)

By creating this hyperlocal bee last year, Signal Cleveland was deliberately taking up the mantle of a community event historically supported by newspapers. When the very first Scripps spelling bee took place almost a century ago, in 1925, it was a collaboration of nine newspapers, spearheaded by Kentucky’s Courier Journal.2 Today, the regional partnerships that help organize the bees that culminate in the national competition have “evolved into a diverse collection of media outlets, universities, community organizations, sports teams and convention and visitors’ bureaus,” per the Scripps website.

For Signal Cleveland, the spelling bee — and the free tutoring sessions at a local library that build up to it — is a low-stakes, high-reward, and fun approach to supporting child literacy in a community that cares deeply about educational opportunities for children. The bee costs around $5,000 to coordinate and host, including paying coordinators and offering the tutoring sessions, and the organization breaks even fundraising for the event.

Editor-in-chief Lila Mills and her colleagues see the project as a natural, if creative, extension of Signal Cleveland’s mission to inform the community.

“Everyone loves a bee”

The idea for a Signal Cleveland-run spelling bee began with a community listening initiative. In early 2023, the outlet had created a paid community listening team focused on having conversations with residents of Cleveland’s underserved Central neighborhood to learn what matters to community members, editor-in-chief Mills told me. (According to a 2021 factsheet from the Center for Community Solutions, the overwhelming majority of Central residents are Black, and the median household income is just above $10,000.)

This neighborhood has been historically overlooked, and covered unfairly, by local media, Mills explained. That meant for Signal Cleveland, it was deeply important to do the legwork to learn what’s important to the community as a foundation and prerequisite to meaningful reporting.

To build that foundation, the team began by attending community events, distributing paper and digital surveys, and “talk[ing] to people on the bus” to try to get a sense of day-to-day life, and what people care about, Mills said. But one of the community listeners in particular — La Queta Worley (who grew up in the Central neighborhood and still has family and attends church there) — kept reminding the team that to earn the community’s trust, “we have to be of use,” Mills explained. “The needs are great. So the listening is great, and talking to community members is great, but we also have to figure out how to be of use.”

How to best be of use in Central? One theme in early survey responses and community listening was that educational opportunities were a top community priority. Since literacy levels are a local challenge — an early Signal Cleveland story reported that “more than half of Cuyahoga County’s adults can’t read at the highest proficiency level” — an initiative to support student literacy seemed like one option to be concretely helpful to the community.

Supporting literacy, in Mills’ mind, also dovetails with the organization’s broader mission.

“Overall, one of our goals for Signal Cleveland is to be able to translate the news and information so it’s not just words on a page,” she said. “We’re recognizing that if it is that 66% of folks have [a] literacy level around grade three or so, then in order to do our job and reach people, we need to figure out how to work in that space. So whether it is communicating through social media, or flyers or audio pieces or videos — that’s all part of this work as well. It’s all part of that literacy support work.”

Kellie Morris, another community listener who’s also a former middle school history teacher and current substitute teacher, had experience coordinating a spelling bee for the Glenville Festival, which got the team thinking about organizing their own bee. To kickstart funding for the project, they decided to pitch a spelling bee to the Inner Visions Giving Circle, a form of “speed philanthropy” through a community funder where all three women have a mutual acquaintance, Inner Visions executive director Jan Thrope (who also supports Signal beyond the bee). It worked: the Circle awarded Signal $1,000 in the first year, which allowed the team to purchase snacks, trophies, and prep materials for the first bee. (Morris told me she’d learned from organizing the other community bee that a trophy “is a great on-the-spot organizer, or recruiting tool.”) The St. Vincent Charity Foundation, which also funded Signal Cleveland’s Central listening team, was the other major funder for the 2023 spelling bee. This year, the $5,000 in bee funding came from Thrope, the Synthomer Foundation, and one of the bee’s three volunteer judges, consultant Patti Choby.

“I just thought, everyone loves a bee,” Morris said.

Free study sessions (and candy) at a local library

As part of the preparation for the bee — and to help the students “feel comfortable with the process,” Morris explained — the team decided to organize study sessions at the local library starting about two months ahead of the May bee. Mills, Morris, and Worley spoke with me on Tuesday afternoon, the same day they typically drop by the library for some part of two hours of tutoring. Another community partner, The Links, Inc., often sends a couple tutors to the weekly session. (The team also initially reached out to invite some local teachers to get involved with the bee, but most couldn’t, citing time constraints.)

“It’s very important to be consistent and always have someone present,” Morris said.

The location of these sessions matters: the Sterling library branch is a hangout spot after school for kids anyway (where Worley said kids often have an after-school snack), so these informal tutoring sessions can pull in children who are already in the library. Mills thinks that’s how most students have found out about the bee.

The tutors generally hang a banner and have candy as extra enticement, and have sometimes screened spelling-related movies and TV episodes like Akeelah and the Bee and The Proud Family’s spelling bee episode.

Students are provided with a notepad for writing out and practicing words, and are typically tutored to a word list specific to their grade level. While last year, students from a mix of different schools participated in the bee, this year most of the interested students came from the Marion-Sterling Elementary School, right across from the Sterling library branch.

Worley noted that she never forces students to spell if they aren’t feeling it: the bee, and tutoring, are meant to be comfortable, flexible, and fun. “It’s completely optional,” she said. (And there are factors beyond the coordinators’ control — for instance, on a rainy day, parents might need their kids home and not let them come to the library on Tuesday.)

“Every child doesn’t come every week, nor is it the requirement,” Morris added.

In the bee’s first year, some tutoring sessions and the bee itself took place at a different location, a settlement house called The Friendly Inn about 25 blocks away from the library. But Worley warned the team that students wouldn’t come up “past 40th St.,” and her warning proved prescient: some of the 30+ students who registered did not attend the day of (even though the settlement house is technically still part of the same Central neighborhood, there’s a dividing line at 40th St., Mills explained). So this year, Signal Cleveland made sure to host the actual bee at the library. As a result, compared to more day-of, random participation by students last year, this year more students who had participated in the tutoring made it to the bee, Mills said.

Students needed parents to fill out a registration form to participate, and the Signal Cleveland team calls or texts parents to confirm, Mills said. Morris added that to help raise awareness about the bee this year — and keep it from being lost in translation between kids and parents — she ordered ribbons that say “spelling bee” and pinned some on kids during a tutoring session.

“They went home and they’re like, ‘my mom’s so proud of me, because she was in a spelling bee!’ You know, it is really a matter of communicating and getting the message out there,” Morris said.

It’s striking to her that a spelling bee — an event that in some ways seems anachronistic or quaint in the digital era — continues to have such cultural resonance. “The concept of a spelling bee is pretty pervasive still in our society,” she said. “But…the way that students learn their words is not the same. So they’re not writing their words 10 times each or three times each, with a spelling book.”

Bee Day

Another lesson learned last year: it’s easier to fire up younger students about spelling. “Recruiting for the upper grade levels is more difficult. The eighth graders really don’t want to come to the library — they just want to, after school, hang out with their friends,” Morris said.

The bee was only open to students grades 5-8 in its first year, but the outlet had several enthusiastic younger children attend. So this year, it opened up the bee to grades K-8. Signal registered 24 students and had 14 participate, with second and third graders the most represented, Mills told me. (No seventh or eighth graders participated this year.) Three volunteer judges oversaw the bee: artist and activist Gwen Garth, journalist Margaret Bernstein, and Choby.

Students can, naturally, have nerves about participating. “They were nervous and we lost a couple who were simply too scared to take part, but it’s an important opportunity to be able to stand in front of your peers and spell,” Mills said in a follow-up email. “It was a supportive environment, lots of clapping after each word tried.”

Students do not have to use the word in a spelling sentence — they just have to say the word, spell it, and repeat it. Students are also allowed to write down their answers. “It isn’t as formal; it’s meant to be a light educational enhancement, not the extreme competitiveness that we see in the Scripps bee,” Morris explained.

The Signal team is attentive to the students’ abilities, and in constructing the word lists, tries to challenge students without giving “words that are really out of their scope, because that, again, would create a negative experience for them.” For instance, “if we have a second grader who knows the word gold, then we might use the words bold, sold, told, for example, so that they are learning words with the -old suffix,” Morris said.

“It’s meant to feel good…to be kind of a sense of accomplishment,” Mills agreed.

She called the hosting library branch “a true community gem,” and said “the children who participated [this year] know it well and are comfortable there.” The branch manager ordered pizza for the children after the competition, which they got to eat in the library.

Worley, meanwhile, “wrangled some funding for prizes so everyone who participated got to choose a gift bag or gift basket,” Mills added. “They were filled with personal hygiene products and toys like jump ropes and basketballs.” Of course, “the first place winners received trophies.”

Earning the community’s trust, bit by bit

Mills, Morris, and Worley all grew up in Cleveland. Yet they’ve been mindful of pushback against coming in as outsiders, on the neighborhood level, to this specific community.

“What I love about it is that when I was thinking about listening and community listening when we were first starting, I never knew that it would take this form,” Mills reflected. “And for me, the beautiful part of it is, this is what happens when you do this work this way — when you don’t come in and assume…that you know what the story is, or that you understand the community at all. And…when you support people to do listening this way, they’re going to come in with their own ideas and their own expertise of what it is. And then the role of the newsroom is to be responsive to that.”

Already, “we use [the bee] to ask the parents to follow us on Signal, to help us tell stories about the community and get them to understand who we are and what our purpose is,” Morris added. But for her, the bottom line is “I love the fact that people get excited about it.”

In the first year, Signal called the bee a pilot, Mills said — but now they consider it a “hallmark event.” She hopes participation in the Central bee will continue to grow.

“The cost, when you’re thinking about it from a cost perspective, is relatively mild,” she said. “And I think the return you gain in terms of trust and community building and the ripple that it has on reporters and the published information is really high.”

All photos by Gennifer Harding-Gosnell/Cleveland Documenters for Signal Cleveland.

  1. Dale Anglin, Press Forward’s inaugural director, previously worked at the Cleveland Foundation and still serves on Signal’s board. []
  2. The very first national spelling bee, however, was hosted by the National Education Association in 1908 — when, as it happens, eighth grade Cleveland native Marie C. Bolden triumphed despite racist backlash to her participation in the competition. []
Sophie Culpepper is a staff writer at Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@s_peppered).
POSTED     May 28, 2024, 2:54 p.m.
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