Two dozen students sat in maroon chairs on a stage at River Oaks Elementary on Saturday. They waited eagerly, and a little nervously, for the start of the Pflugerville Independent School District’s annual Spanish Spelling Bee, which is open to third, fourth and fifth graders.
The event, which the district has been holding for more than a decade, appears to be unique in the Austin area.
“We are the only district we know of in the Central Texas region that hosts a Spanish spelling bee,” Jennifer Harrell, the dual language coordinator for Pflugerville ISD, said. “And it’s really become a strong tradition here.”
The students in the competition represented eleven elementary campuses with dual language programs.
One by one each student stepped up to the microphone at the front of the glossy stage. Their families, teachers and other school staff waited with bated breath as they carefully spelled out words they had spent the last couple of months practicing at home and on campus with coaches.
“It is quite a lengthy list of words that they have to study, so they do start in October, Harrell said. “Our most successful students usually study three or four times a week.”
One of the coaches, Jonathan Macegoza, found a way to carve out time in the busy school day to prepare his students for the spelling bee by practicing at lunch.
“Sometimes they even had the incentive to practice during recess. ‘I’m like you don’t have to, but we can,'” the fourth grade dual language teacher said.
The list of words students studied was divided into six levels of difficulty. Words like “antiguo,” “árbol” and “llave” fell under the first and easiest category. A couple of the words in the most difficult category were “clavicémbalo” and “otorrinolaringólogo.”
District interpreter and translator Stephanie Sanyour said something that makes the Spanish Spelling Bee challenging is students must clarify when they’re using certain letters, like “b” and “v” because they sound similar and the judges need to know which they’re using. They also need to include accents on the correct letters.
“So if they say canción — song — right? And they say ‘c-a-n-c-i-ó-n’ and they forgot the accent — they’re disqualified,” Sanyour said. “It’s very sad to see that because they’re trying really hard.”
But Macegoza said even if students didn’t get far in the competition, it was still valuable to participate.
“I think it drives them to be like: ‘OK, you learn from failure, so it’s OK.’ Look how far you made it,” he said. “It’s better than not doing anything.”
The competition has another important role to play, according to Harrell. It’s vital, she said, to elevate the variety of languages PfISD students speak to show them and their families how it enriches their school communities.
“Having a spelling bee that promotes [students’] academic development is really important,” she said. “And it really shows them that what they bring to the table — that language, sometimes their native language or their heritage language — is valued here in our district.”
Within Pflugerville ISD, students speak more than 100 languages. The top three are English, Spanish and Vietnamese. In the last few years, the number of emergent bilingual students enrolled in the district has increased significantly. An emergent bilingual student is one who is in the process of learning English and has another primary language.
Data the district provided show that in 2021, 5,300 students were considered emergent bilingual. Now that figure is 7,538, marking a 42% increase in the emergent bilingual student population. Roughly 70% of those students are Spanish speakers.
Other Central Texas school districts are also seeing their emergent bilingual student populations grow. Liberty Hill ISD, outside of Austin, has seen its number of emergent bilingual students increase by more than 300% in the last five years. In Texas, as a whole, a fifth of the state’s 5.5 million public school students are considered emergent bilingual.
Harrell said she would like to help other districts in Central Texas launch Spanish spelling bees.
“I would love to help any district in our area that would be willing to start a Spanish spelling bee in their district,” she said. “It’s a great way to promote Spanish within their dual language programs.”
This year’s competition in Pflugerville was a nail-biter that came down to two students from Copperfield Elementary: Luis and Alisson.
Luis, who is in fifth grade, ultimately won by correctly spelling the word “piragüismo,” which translates to “canoeing” in English.
“I was quite surprised to win. I never expected this to happen,” he said. “I’m really glad.”
Copperfield Elementary Principal Georgie Arenaz said it was exciting students from her school came in first and second.
“We haven’t been first or second in 11 years. So it’s taken a long time, a lot of practice — it’s all up to their hard work and their coach, Doris Espinoza,” she said.
Luis said he practiced every weekday to prepare for the spelling bee. He would look at a word, close his eyes and spell it, and then look at the word again to check it. He also said he wrote them out.
Even though Luis seemed calm, cool and collected on stage — he said he was actually nervous.
“My heart was thumping,” he said.
With his win, Luis automatically advances to the National Spanish Spelling Bee, which will be held in El Paso in June. The district will pay for him, his coach and a parent or guardian to attend the competition.
“I’m excited. I’ve never gone to El Paso before,” he said.
Luis, smiling brightly, also thanked his teachers, his coach, his parents and his friends for their support.