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Fifth-graders dominate county spelling bee

Tara Elementary School fifth-grader, Brittany Chopra, is no shyster, but she does know how to spell the word.

Chopra, 11, won the Clayton County Spelling Bee on Thursday by spelling "s-h-y-s-t-e-r," a word that Merriam-Webster OnLine says refers to unscrupulous people.

She won the spelling bee by defeating Roberta T. Smith Elementary School fifth-grader, DeSean Washington, 9, in a final round that lasted more than 40 minutes.

"I had no idea what it [the correct spelling] was, it was just luck," Chopra said. "It feels really, really good to be the spelling bee champion, though."

Sid Chapman, president of the Clayton County Education Association, which runs the county bee, said Chopra and Washington may have set a local record for the length of a final round. "That's probably the longest final round that we've ever had, as far as I know," Chapman said.

Chopra, Washington, Huie Elementary School fifth-grader, Temidayo Akinniyi, 11, (the third-place finisher), and West Clayton Elementary School fifth-grader, Kaitlin McCullough, 10, (the fifth-place finisher), will advance to the Georgia Association of Educators' District Five Spelling Bee. It will be held on Feb. 27, at 10 a.m., at Mundy's Mill Middle School, which is located at 1251 Mundy's Mill Road, in Jonesboro.

This is the first time in several years that all four students who advanced from the Clayton County Spelling Bee were elementary school students, said Clayton County Public Schools Elementary Language Arts Coordinator Lisa Orr.

The district bee's winner, and runner-up, will advance to the state spelling bee, which will be held in March. The state champion advances to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, in Washington D.C., in May.

At the Clayton County Spelling Bee, Chopra and Washington battled it out for so long that spelling bee officials ran out of words on the official spelling list, and had to turn to the dictionary for additional words.

"It was kind of scary," said Chopra, who just barely missed out on making the district spelling bee last year, when she lost in a spell-off for fourth place. She said "it's pretty much unreal" that she went from just missing the district spelling bee last year, to being this year's county champion.

Washington agreed that the lengthy final round was a bit daunting, but said he went through much of the round confident in his spelling skills. "I thought I was going to win," he said. "Once we went to the words from the dictionary, though, that's when I began to struggle."

This was the second, consecutive Clayton County Spelling Bee in which contestants hung on so long that the dictionary was needed for additional words.

During the final round, a person can stay in the hunt for the championship, if the other speller cannot spell two consecutive words. For most of the final round, neither Chopera nor Washington missed a word, though. In fact, it was not until the dictionary words were pulled out in the final minutes that the spellers both began to struggle.

"They were two of the toughest spellers we've ever seen," Chapman said. "I wouldn't be surprised if either of them made it to the state spelling bee –– and won."

But, spelling bees can be unpredictable. Last year, then-Lovejoy Middle School seventh-grader, Tanaeya McCoy, who beat Chopra in that spell-off for the county's fourth-place spot at the 2009 District Five Spelling Bee, went on to be the district champion and finished among the top five spellers at the state spelling bee.

McCoy has since moved to another school system, according to Margaret Rezek, a county spelling bee judge and a Clayton County Public Schools language arts school improvement specialist.

Chopra and Washington said they plan to keep studying, so they can follow in McCoy's footsteps. Both students said they have already been practicing daily for a couple of months. Both are eyeing a district championship.

"I'm just going to study spelling words on merriam-webster.com, dictionary.com and spellingcity.com," said Chopra.

"I'm going to read each word carefully, and study how to spell them, especially the words in the dictionary," Washington said.