First Detroit school district student heads to National Spelling Bee

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News
Seventh-grader Zarra Noor, who will be participating in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, poses for a photo at her school, Davison Elementary-Middle School, in Detroit.

Detroit — Zaara Noor won her first spelling bee in kindergarten.

Now, at age 12, she is the first student from Detroit Public Schools Community District to compete in the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Maryland on Sunday. 

Zaara will join 564 spellers, all looking to out spell other students to reach the finals on Thursday for the national title, $50,000 and prizes.

"I love spelling because you learn a lot and it's going to be helpful when I get older," she said Friday. "I really like challenging myself."

Zaara placed second at the regional spelling bee finals at the Charles H. Wright Museum in Detroit, qualifying her to apply to national bee in Maryland. She is studying for the competition and will travel with her English language arts teacher, Michelle Pizzo from Davison Elementary-Middle School in Detroit. 

"This is only the third or fourth year we've even competed in regionals, and when she came in second, we were so shocked and thought 'How did we get here and what's next?' " said Pizzo, who has worked in the district for 25 years. "I don't think we've ever applied before this, but it's different with her."

Detroit Public Schools Community District said they are proud Zaara is the first student, according to their records, to qualify and attend the nationals.

Scripps Spelling Bee officials said they can't confirm she is the very first to attend from Detroit since the bee began in 1925, but they are not disputing that she's the first from the school district. Last year, students qualified from Canton Township; Grosse Pointe Shores in 2017; Grosse Pointe Park in 2016; and Plymouth and Canton Township in 2015.

Detroit has a rich history with spelling bees. James Edmund Scripps founded The Evening News (later, The Detroit News). Each year, huge crowds would attend The Detroit News' own Spelling Bee at the State Fair Coliseum in the city. Winners then attended the Scripps National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. The News dropped its bee in 1995.

National spelling bee officials gave the students, between 7 to 15 years old, 600 words to study, but Zaara said she's also studying about five hours a day from "Words of Wisdom: a Thinker's Palette" by Scott Gallagher, and random words in the Merriam-Webster dictionary. 

The longest word she can spell is, pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis, a lung disease caused by inhaling fine ash and sand dust. Her favorite word to spell is philhellenism, a love of Greek culture. The word fluorocarbon has stumped her in the past, but she has since mastered it.

The competition kicks off Sunday, when the best nationally and participants from around the world will compete six days for the title, which comes with a $50,000 prize.

The winner will also receive an engraved trophy, $2,500 prize and they get to complete a reference in the library from Merriam-Webster, a three-year membership to Encyclopedia Britannica. The winner will also make guest appearances on "Live with Kelly and Ryan" and a trip to Hollywood to appear on ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live!"

"I'm going to try to win for myself, my parents, my great DPS school, my teacher, Mr. (superintendent) Vitti and all my classmates, who have been such big supporters," Zaara said. 

A practicing Muslim, she is fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, but she said she is not worried about getting tired during the day without food.

"I've got my teacher, my best friend beside me, and I'll try to be as focused as possible," she said.

If she wins, Zaara said she'd save the money for college, where she plans to study to be a brain surgeon, and use some of the money to travel to Mecca for a pilgrimage.

There are 11 million students in the bee's program from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Department of Defense Schools in Europe. There also are students from the Bahamas, Canada, Germany, Ghana, Jamaica, Japan and South Korea.

Pizzo said Zaara is not an average seventh grader.

"She comes from a beautiful family, and if you know her, her drive, her dedication ... that's why we pursued going to the competition because she wants it so bad," Pizzo said. "I've never met anyone like her in all my years.

"She's hardworking, respectful, kind and it makes you as a teacher want to work hard for her," Pizzo said.