How do you spell
Answering that question probably wouldn't be difficult for Meghan Reynolds, a 12-year-old home-schooled student from southern Chester County, a winner in last year's Scripps National Spelling Bee contest at her local school.
But figuring out whether Meghan can compete this year - under a new state law that gives home-schooled students the right to participate in public-school extracurricular activities - isn't so easy.
The Avon Grove district says no; in its judgment, the first round of the bee is a classroom activity, not an extracurricular one, and therefore is not covered by the law.
The state senator who proposed the legislation says it is "absolutely" Meghan's right to compete in the spelling bee at Fred S. Engle Middle School, since the classroom contest is the first step in a national competition. Another sponsor of the bill, Senate Majority Leader Dominic F. Pileggi (R., Chester), said that, if necessary, he will introduce an amendment to clarify the law. Participation of home-schooled students in this kind of event "is what the law was intended to address," he said.
Meghan's parents and supporters plan to show up at the district's school board meeting tonight with a petition.
The matter may end up in court. The Home School Legal Defense Association, a Virginia-based nonprofit, says it will take legal action unless the district changes its stance.
Pennsylvania is one of 16 states with laws that require districts to allow home-schoolers to join in extracurricular activities. In New Jersey, where there are 2,500 home-schooled students, local districts decide.
At stake, Meghan's supporters say, is whether Act 67, which went into effect at the beginning of last year, will be interpreted to allow broad participation in public-school activities by the state's 23,000 home-schoolers.
About 3,400 live in the Philadelphia region including more than 1,000 in Chester County, about 60 of them at Avon Grove.
Also at stake are the feelings of a child who was "devastated" by the district's decision, said her mother, Kim Reynolds. "I don't understand why they're so adamant to say no," she said. "They can say 'Welcome here.' . . . She just wants to be included."
Act 67 was passed in late 2005 after an Allentown family in 2000 challenged the local district to allow their son to play soccer.
The law says that home-schoolers must be allowed to participate in public-school athletics or in any other activities outlined in Section 511 of the Pennsylvania School Code, a definition that includes "exercises, athletics, or games of any kind, school publications, debating, forensic, dramatic, musical, and other activities related to the school program."
It is up to local districts to interpret how that applies to their schools, said Pennsylvania Department of Education spokesman Michael Storm. There is no specific penalty for noncompliance, he added; the family's only remedy would be through the courts.
Avon Grove School District Superintendent Augustus Massaro says the law does not cover the first round of the spelling bee, which is held in school classrooms. "This is a co-curricular, not an extracurricular activity," Massaro said last week. "The early rounds of the spelling bee require participation in the Language Arts program. If you are not part of the school, you can't participate, because this is part of the Language Arts curriculum."
Classroom spelling bee winners must be selected by Feb. 9; the schoolwide bee will be held on Feb. 16, school officials said.
School district solicitor Michael Levin put it this way: The first round of the bee, he said "is part and parcel of the classroom instruction. This is not the type of activity that the law says home-schooled students must be allowed to engage in."
Act 67's principal sponsor, State Senator Bob Regola (R., Westmoreland), said the spelling bee "is sponsored by a national nonprofit organization. Even if it is during school hours and within a classroom, that should not preclude that a home-schooled student should participate."
He added: "I think the law is clear. Come on, what are they afraid of? Let the young lady participate."
Senate majority leader Pileggi, whose district the Reynolds family lives in, said that while he could not comment on the specifics of Meghan's situation, "clearly, spelling bees are the type of activity that home-schoolers were to be allowed participation in. That was the intent of the law."
Roger Wilson, a Franklin Township supervisor who is a neighbor of the Reynolds family, helped circulate an e-mail appeal and a petition for Meghan's inclusion that has gathered widespread support and will be presented to the school board tonight, he said.
"I'm concerned that the district is looking for ways to exclude her rather than be open," Wilson said. "You can't help but have the suspicion that she's being excluded because she won last year and they don't want the competition. It's surprising and disappointing that they don't welcome her participation."
Massaro said the district's action will not prevent Meghan from taking part in the Scripps bee.
The superintendent would not comment specifically on Meghan's participation in the event last year. Kim Reynolds said she had been told by district officials that it was "a mistake."
Meghan Reynolds said last week that she is not reconciled to the district's proposed alternative because that will be held in Exton and she wants to compete with local students.