Saketh Sundar

Spelling Your Way to the Top

Saketh Sundar is entering 7th grade at Mayfield Woods Middle School. Sundar is active at his school, participating in the orchestra, student government association, and news, film, coding and debate clubs. Sundar participated in the 2016 and 2017 Scripps National Spelling Bee, placing 12th this year.

Melissa ShindelMelissa Shindel has been an educator for more than 20 years and a principal for eight. She is currently the principal at Mayfield Woods Middle School. Shindel is the past president of the Maryland Association of Secondary School Principals (MASSP) and currently serves as a member of the MASSP board.  

Shindel partnered with Sundar to blog about his spelling bee journey. By making the top 15 nationally, Sundar went farther than any other Howard County student in the history of the competition.

Each year, millions of students from around the world participate in their school or community spelling bee. Whether large or small, every bee is full of suspense and excitement.

In Howard County, every school or organization sends its top speller and runner-up to the Howard County Library System (HCLS) Spelling Bee. Each year, after hours of competition that usually end close to midnight, the winner of the HCLS bee is announced and that student advances to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. l know this pattern well. As principal in two different schools, I have had students advance to the Scripps bee four times, and each time it was equally as nerve-wracking and exciting. For the past two years, the HCLS winner has been Saketh Sundar.

Saketh’s spelling bee journey began at Bellows Spring Elementary School, where he remembers: “I always enjoyed spelling and was enthusiastic to compete in spelling bees. I started out in 4th grade. My mom and I spent 30 minutes every day going over the words. I won my class spelling bee and advanced to the school bee. There, I got words I had studied and won. For the county bee though, I bowed out on the word ‘blight’ which befittingly means ‘something that frustrates one’s plans or withers one’s hopes.’ That first blight of my spelling bee career is what ignited the spark that took me to the national bee.”

As a 5th grader, Saketh worked even harder. He studied and practiced more often, won the competition in his school, and moved on to the HCLS bee. He recalls being on stage in the late hours, and he was ecstatic to hear the pronouncer say, “We have a winner.” This had been his goal since he was younger, and he was thrilled to be moving on to the national competition.

In the Scripps national bee, the preliminary round includes not only spelling words on stage, but also taking a spelling and vocabulary test. No more than the top 50 spellers move on to the final round. During his first visit to Scripps, Saketh did not qualify for finals. He recalls: “This experience made me mentally tough, and I set my goal that the next year I would make the finals.” And that’s just what he did.

As a 6th grader at the national spelling bee, Saketh did well on both the written and oral portions of the preliminaries. On the next day of competition, after correctly spelling both onstage words, Saketh heard his name during the announcement of finalists. Instead of celebrating, he went to bed. A huge day awaited him.

On June 1, Saketh participated in four rounds of spelling during the day. I can remember the excitement at Mayfield Woods. The bee was televised on ESPN2, and we made it available in classrooms, so students could watch Saketh spell. Staff and students could be heard cheering in the hallways each time Saketh spelled a word correctly. Community members, parents and local businesses contacted the school or posted their support on social media. It was a truly unique and magical experience. In a matter of days, Saketh Sundar became a hometown hero.

By the end of round seven, Saketh became a primetime finalist, and this hometown hero was now an ESPN star. He was interviewed by and highlighted on ESPN, and tweeted by Amanda Carey, associate producer for the NFL. Carey mentioned Saketh’s favorite athlete, the Ravens’ Justin Tucker, who in turn tweeted, “I know who I’m rooting for this #SpellingBee! Let’s go Saketh!!”

Finally, it was time for the nationally televised primetime finals. I was there with Saketh’s parents, and everyone in the studio audience was buzzing with excitement as ESPN commentators were live in the room. Unfortunately, Saketh spelled his first word incorrectly. Saketh said, “My mind blanked. I knew most of the words following my elimination and was frustrated. But then I realized I still have two more years. This experience taught me a few life lessons like how to handle pressure, be optimistic and accept failure gracefully.”

Saketh does have two more years to compete, and we suspect we will see him again on ESPN primetime.

Saketh said, “This opportunity and experience would not be possible without HCLS and their sponsors. I would like to take this opportunity to thank HCLS, HCPSS, my parents, my school principal, and others for their support and encouragement!”

Photo credit: Mark Bowen/Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Jonathan Taylor with his Personal Finance Challenge team.

Academy of Finance Changed My Life

Jonathan Taylor (above right) is a senior at Long Reach High School while enrolled in the Academy of Finance. He plans to study finance and business in college. Here, Taylor blogs about his Academy of Finance experiences and their impact on his future goals.

It was my first day at the Academy of Finance. As soon as I walked in the room, I saw the stock ticker in the back. After finding a seat, I started talking to the students around me. Some went to Atholton, some to Marriotts Ridge, but for this class we were all in the same room learning about topics that interested us.

We kicked off the year by talking about the Dow’s recent downturn and the S&P 500. I was somewhat confused, to say the least, but it didn’t matter. This was going to be a great class. About a month into the class, we started learning about financial literacy. I had learned quite a bit about financial literacy at home, and I half-expected to be covering things I already knew. What I didn’t expect was for us to be participating in a 3-month personal finance simulation.

Through the simulation, everyone had the same income, job and set of vendor options, but could choose which options to select. I had several different choices for my bank, credit card, cable television, cell phone, auto loan and even renter’s insurance. The goal was to pick the best options, so I could save as much money as possible. I had my fair share of mistakes and errors, but learned a lot not only about budgeting but about myself as a consumer. Most importantly though, the simulation felt real, like something I could apply to my own life.

Throughout my time at the academy, I’ve had similar experiences with economics, accounting, international business and even entrepreneurship. But perhaps the most significant experience for me was participating in the Personal Finance Challenge. After learning about the opportunity, I hit the books reading through all the financial literacy topics we had covered in class. Additionally, my team had the chance to study with John Hauserman, a certified financial planner that my Academy of Finance teacher connected us with. We learned about tax returns, annuities, retirement planning and estate planning, all with John Hauserman.

A few months later it was time for the state-level competition. After three rounds of testing and a quiz bowl, my team emerged as first in the state. Before I could register what was going on, we were being congratulated and told we’d represent Maryland at nationals in Kansas City in May. In what seemed like a blink of an eye, it was May, and I was flying out with my team for nationals. I felt prepared but also extremely nervous.

After the first round at nationals, I looked at the team leaderboard to see how we did. We didn’t even place. “Is there even a chance to win now?” I thought to myself. We had to place second overall to qualify for the quiz bowl and have a shot at victory. Two more rounds of testing later, and I looked at the leaderboard, nervous and excited. We had qualified for the quiz bowl.

During the quiz bowl, we faced off against the first place team as we were asked 30 questions about regulations, investing, financial calculations and other financial topics. Our teams were neck and neck the entire time; there didn’t seem to be a clear winning team. Finally, it was the final question. We were up a point. We buzzed in but got the question wrong. Then the other team buzzed in and got the question wrong, too. I looked at my team and made the realization: we just won the National Personal Finance Challenge. My team’s preparation through the Academy of Finance had paid off.

Apart from providing me with valuable, memorable experiences, the Academy of Finance has made a huge impact on my future goals and plans. Before the academy, I knew I liked working with math and money, but it was only through the Academy of Finance that I got to try finance out and confirm it was right for me.

With everything I have done in the academy, I feel prepared and confident for the real world, and look forward to studying finance and business more in college. The Academy of Finance has changed my life, and I believe it can do the same for anyone else who takes advantage of the opportunity.

The Academy of Finance is one career academy in HCPSS’ Career and Technical Education (CTE) program. Taylor’s guest blog is part of HCPSS’ participation in celebrating CTE Month®, this February.

Making The Most Of Your Senior Year



AlCorvah-webAlbert Corvah is a former student member of the Howard County Board of Education. He writes this week to HCPSS seniors about his experience as a first-year student at Harvard University and the keys to high school senior-year success.

Dear Class of 2015:

About a year ago now, I was in a similar situation that many of you may be in right now: waiting for and considering opportunities about college. Last March, I officially committed to Harvard and, in retrospect, I couldn’t have made a better decision.

My first semester of college was more rewarding than I ever could have imagined. I, like many other first year college students, faced early difficulties with an intense workload and in time management. However, tackling those challenges head on helped me take more ownership of my learning and developed within me what one of my professors called “the joy of self-discovery.”

I was fortunate to make a few meaningful relationships early in my college career and because of meeting and getting to know different people, I was better able to adjust to my new environment. I feel like I learned and continue to learn more about how the world works outside of the classroom, where I’ve met people who are similar to me in some ways, but completely different in others. This is perhaps the most significant gain of my college experience thus far: having my worldview shaped than it has ever been in my lifetime.

I’ve never worked this hard before—but I’ve also never had as much fun along the way.

As you settle in from winter break, you will have midterms and will be on the road to graduation. I know you are excited as you think about life beyond high school. Slow down and take this time to savor the time remaining in your senior year.

Some tips for ending your senior year:

1.     Be active

Go to as many events as you can over the school year. Take more administrative roles in the clubs you’re in. This is your last semester of high school, so immersing yourself in the culture one last time will help ensure that you leave with no regrets. My end-of-senior-year activities are among the best memories of my high school career.

2.     Avoid senioritis at all costs

I am sure you’ve heard this a thousand times, but I can tell you it’s for the best. The introductory classes that you’ll take in your freshman year of college often mirror some classes that you’ll take in the latter stages of high school. Work hard to grasp that material now, in order to save the time and energy you will need to adjust to college life.

3.     Take healthy risks

Let go of the fear of failure or peer pressure. Talk to someone who is not in your typical circle of friends or comfort. You never know what you could learn by breaking the boundaries you’ve drawn for yourself.

4.     Make sure your next step is well thought out

Are you deciding between two schools? Going to the military? Pondering the meaning of life on your couch? Whatever it is, make sure that you have the logistics covered before making a long-term commitment. Compare the pros and cons of each potential action you plan to take. Speak to your counselor if you are unsure about certain processes in the admissions process. What you do after high school has lifetime repercussions, so use all of your resources and try  to make the choices that are right for you now, and will benefit you in the years to come.

5.     Be nice to your folks

Your parents and guardians have devoted years of hard work to your well-being. They love you twice as much as you think and are as excited as you are for graduation day this spring. For many of you, seeing your parents will be at a premium for a long time after the summer. So make sure that your parents know that you appreciate their efforts and that they’ll always have a place in your life and in your heart.