By Lou Mancinelli

Lena Greenberg, 13, of Chestnut Hill, who is home-schooled, recently won first place in the 17th annual Scripps Regional Bee against 155 other competitors in front of more than 800 spectators. “The competition was more intense than anything I have ever seen,” said her dad, David, a filmmaker and film studies teacher.

For the second consecutive year, Chestnut Hill is home to the Philadelphia region’s Scripps Spelling Bee champion.

Seventh grade home-schooled student Lena Goldberg competed head to head in the final rounds for over an hour with last year’s runner-up, a runner-up Goldberg placed one spot behind last year, before spelling “cytolysis” to win the March 21 competition. Goldberg will travel to Washington, D.C., in June to compete in the 17th Annual National Scripps Spelling Bee, broadcast live on ESPN.

One-hundred-and-fifty-six fifth- through eighth-graders from across the region participated in the event at Microsoft’s School For the Future in West Philadelphia, hosted by the Philadelphia Tribune, Scripps and Keystone Mercy Health Plan. That number reflects a 50 percent increase in participation compared to last year’s regional, won by a Chestnut Hill Academy student.

In the 28th round, four hours into the competition, eighth grader Varshita Parmar misspelled “gnosis,” providing the opportunity for Greenberg to oust the young girl who had eliminated her only a year prior.

“I was able to figure out how to spell the word because of word roots,” said Greenberg last week during a telephone interview. “Part of the definition had to do with cells breaking down.” From there, she knew the root “lysis” meant to break down. For the rest of the word Greenberg “sort of made a good guess. It just sounded right.”

Greenberg, 13, wanted to be in the Spelling Bee ever since she saw it on television for the first time five years ago. To expand her spelling knowledge, she studies language patterns, like how certain sounds are spelled in different languages and word roots. She uses the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary of Prefixes, Suffixes and Combining Forms and reads as much as she can.

Greenberg said for the national competition, with the help of her mother, Marisol Villamil, who is also her home school teacher, she’d target more difficult words and focus more on word roots.

If you’ve ever seen the competition on television, competitors often ask for a word’s origin and definition to help break the word down. If the competitor knows the prefix, suffix, or as was Greenberg’s case in the regional, the root, it can help the individual minimize how much he/she guessing.

“I like to watch sports, I love scary movies and I can tell you that this competition was more intense than anything I have ever seen,” said David Greenberg, Lena’s father, a University of the Arts screenwriting professor, who has also taught at Drexel and Arcadia Universities. Greenberg admitted he himself did not know the spelling of many of the words the kids spelled, including the one his daughter spelled to win. His daughter may have writing in her blood. A number of her own short stories and poems have been published in children’s literary magazines like Stone Soup.

The regional bee was open to all fifth- through eighth- grade students attending Philadelphia private, public, parochial, charter or home-school organization affiliates. To qualify for the competition, students were chosen by participating schools or won their school’s own spelling bee.

“When I looked on that stage and saw the beautiful fabric of all the kids from all different walks of life,” said At-Large City Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown the week after the competition, “and all the different nationalities, I saw our own United Nations.

“As a former educator and a parent of a teenager,” said Brown, who has served as a VIP judge at the event for the past five years, “I take interest in the rich experiences here at this type of showcase that shows some of the best and brightest Philadelphia has to offer.”

“The intensity and stress was evident,” said Greenberg’s father. “Most pro athletes don’t have to endure four hours of grueling stressful competition, but these youngsters exhibited great poise and grace throughout the entire event.”

“I was a little nervous,” said the younger Greenberg, “but in a good way. I was more thinking about the words.”

“She never pushed us towards participating in this,” said her father. “It was more she had to get us to make it happen.”