By Curt Yeomans
Organizers of Clayton County's spelling bee had a problem on their hands Thursday as they got close to identifying the four spellers who would move on to the next level of competition: The callers were running out of words.
The contest is sponsored annually by the Clayton County Education Association.
Elementary and middle school contestants, 40 pupils in grades four through eight, plowed through more than 300 words Thursday, forcing judges to pull out a reserve word list after the main list was exhausted and a champion had still not been crowned. It marked the first time in at least five years additional words were needed in the countywide spelling bee.
"It was a great issue to have," said Shonda Shaw, the school system's coordinator of secondary language arts. "That tells you the kids were prepared for this competition."
Christina Pham, a 13-year-old seventh-grader at North Clayton Middle School, won by spelling "ameliorate."
The teen is repeat winner. She also won the countywide contest in 2007 as a fifth-grader at North Clayton Elementary School.
"Since I got so far before, I wanted to do it again," Pham said. "I enjoy words and learning, and I studied a lot for this. I spent at least an hour a day studying for this spelling bee."
Pham will lead Clayton County's contingent into the regional spelling bee, held Feb. 28, at Mundy's Mill Middle School.
Joshua Ojo-Osagie, 10, a fifth-grader at Arnold Elementary School, finished second at the spelling bee. Makayla Rattes, 9, a fourth-grader at Thurgood Marshall Elementary School, came in third.
A spell-off may loom for contestants placing fourth and fifth.
The fourth- and fifth-place finishers were eliminated in the same round, but the rules require them to be eliminated in separate rounds. Sid Chapman, president of the Clayton County Education Association, said he will check to see if he can send five students to the regional competition.
"If not, then there will have to be a spell-off," Chapman said.
Brittany Chopra, a 10-year-old fourth-grader at Tara Elementary School, finished fourth. Tanaeya McCoy, a 13-year-old seventh-grader at Lovejoy Middle School, and the 2008 Clayton County Spelling Bee champion, finished fifth.
"We've always had good spellers involved in this event, but these finalists were really among the best we've ever had," Chapman said.