Innovative 14-year-old Zaiya Avant-grade becomes first African American teen to win national spelling bee

Innovative 14-year-old Zaiya Avant-grade becomes first African American teen to win national spelling bee

BCN Executive Editor Wesley Brown – July 9, 2021 — Zaiya Avant-garde. Z-A-I-Y-A. Remember that name.

The 14-year-old teenager from New Orleans became the first Black American in history to win the 2021 Scripps National Spelling Bee during the national contest in Orlando, Fla., on Thursday (July 8) evening.

Pronounced (zah-EE-luh), Avant-garde earned the prestigious title in round 18, when she correctly spelled “Murraya,” which is defined as “a genus of tropical Asiatic and Australian trees having pinnate leaves and flowers with imbricated petals.”

Adam Symson, president and CEO of The E.W. Scripps Company, presented the championship trophy moments before ESPN signed off from the 93rd Scripps National Spelling Bee, which took place at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando.

“Zaila demonstrated incredible mastery of the English language with poise and perseverance. The excellence of all of our competitors, their hard work and commitment to learning, and their distinct stories, capture hearts and minds across the globe,” said Symson. “We take great pride in the way the Scripps National Spelling Bee, like so many of its spellers, adapted through difficult circumstances over the last year to safely bring back America’s favorite and longest-running educational competition.”

As noted, Avant-garde is the first Black American to be crowned winner of the national Bee. This was her second time participating in the national finals. The first was in 2019. She is an eighth grader at Clover Lane Homeschool and was sponsored by the New Orleans Chapter of The Links.

On her path to the 2021 championship moment, Avant-garde was one of 209 national qualifiers this year and advanced through three levels of virtual competition. The preliminaries were on June 12, the quarterfinals on June 15 and the semifinals on June 27.

On her way to victory in the earlier rounds this year, Avant-garde spelled “alla prima” to get to the finals. She also correctly spelled ediacaran, hellebore, appaloosa, and Occitan in local spelling bee to get to the national event.

As the country continues to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and communities and industries update associated guidelines, the in-person portion of the competition was held at ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in South Florida and not open to spectators. According to organizers, spellers and Bee officials followed health and safety protocols, including masking and physical distancing, throughout the event. Scripps also has consulted on COVID-19-related health and safety protocol with medical experts at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center to facilitate a responsible experience for all.

The Louisiana renaissance teen is also regarded as one of the nation’s best teen athletes and youth basketball players. She holds three Guinness World Records for her basketball talents: the most bounce juggles in 1 minute with four basketballs, the most basketball bounces in 30 seconds with four basketballs and tied the record for most basketballs dribbled at once — 6 — by one person.

The Louisiana native, whose last name in French means original and innovative, said she trained for the 96th spelling bee by reading more than 1,000 books with the New Orleans’ Links chapter. The finals took place on Thursday evening where Avant-garde competed in a suspenseful nine rounds: eight spelling rounds and a word meaning round. The total number of rounds in the competition was 18.

This year the national event also introduced new elements to its nationally broadcast competition, including the first three rounds that were conducted virtually and broadcast live on ESPN platforms beginning June 12 with the preliminaries, followed by the June 15 quarterfinals, and concluding June 27 with the semifinals.

The National Bee also introduced new formats at this year ‘s competition with a word meaning category and an oral vocabulary component. Word meaning will be part of each round of the national competition, designed to challenge the Bee’s national competitors and further advance the program’s focus on word knowledge and literacy

For her historic win, Avant-garde will receive:

  • A $50,000 cash prize from Scripps, commemorative medal and the Scripps Cup, the official championship trophy of the Scripps National Spelling Bee
  • From dictionary maker Merriam-Webster: $2,500 cash prize and reference library from the Bee’s dictionary partner
  • From Encyclopædia Britannica: $400 of reference works, including a 1768 Encyclopædia Britannica Replica Set and a three-year membership to Britannica Online Premium

Chaitra Thummala of Frisco, Texas, and originally from San Ramon, Calif., representing Bay Area Regional Spelling Bee, placed second in the competition and will receive $30,000. Bhavana Madini of New York, representing NYC Regional Spelling Bee, placed third in the competition and will receive $15,000.

Each year, the Scripps National Spelling Bee reaches more than 11 million students participating in spelling bees held in classrooms, schools, and locally sponsored events around the country.

In Arkansas, Avery Grayson Williams of Grant County was the winner of the 2021 Arkansas State Spelling Bee, sponsored by the Electric Cooperatives of Arkansas State. Williams is a Sheridan Middle School student, and the son of Nick and Summer Williams. He competed with 47 other students from across Arkansas at the event held on March 13 at the Arkansas 4-H Center in Little Rock.


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