It’s the season of bees in Olathe.
Academic bees, that is.
A few Olathe students are putting the city in the national spotlight this spring by participating in prestigious competitions.
Vanya Shivashankar, a seventh grader at California Trails Middle School, is heading to the Scripps National Spelling Bee next week for the fourth time. ESPN will broadcast the spelling bee finals, held in Washington, D.C., at 7 p.m. Thursday.
During her first year in the national competition, as an 8-year-old in 2010, Vanya didn’t make it to the semifinals. Last year, she tied for fifth.
“My goal is to make it back to the finals, but really I just want to do my best and see where it takes me,” she said. “I just want to have a blast, see my old friends and make some new ones, and enjoy the experience.”
Next year will be her last chance to compete, as eighth grade is the cut off.
Although she’s not counting on it, Vanya would love to follow in the footsteps of her older sister, Kavya, who took home the first place trophy at the national spelling bee five years ago.
“I try not to think about only having one year left because it will only make me more nervous,” Vanya said. “But it would be pretty awesome to win the entire thing before going to high school.”
Whether or not she wins, the 12-year-old doesn’t plan on giving up the passion once she exits middle school.
She hopes to continue participating in spelling bees in various ways when she’s older, whether as a judge or simply cheering kids on from the sidelines.
“Spelling bees will always be a big part of my life,” she said. “I love them.”
Meanwhile, fellow California Trails student, Chinmay Patil, represented Kansas this past week at the 26th annual televised National Geographic Bee in Washington, D.C.
His journey, however, ended at the preliminary rounds.
Chinmay qualified for the national bee by winning first place at both his school and the state geographic bees this spring.
It was his first time at nationals.
“It was very nerve-wracking,” he said, with a laugh. “I learned the national competition is way different than the state and school bees. The questions are more challenging.”
Last year, Chinmay placed seventh in the state competition.
Next year, he hopes to not only make nationals again, but to earn a place in the finals.
It won’t be easy though, he admitted.
“When you’re in a spelling bee, you just have to know words, but the geography bee covers so much more,” he said. “The questions are about countries, capitals, cultures, current events, politics and everything in between.”
To study, he reads a ton of books and news magazines, he quizzes himself over geographical facts, he studies world maps and he plays geography games on the internet.
On school days, he studies for two to three hours each evening, and on weekends, it’s four hours.
“It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s also a lot of fun,” Chinmay said. “I’m fascinated by other countries and other cultures.”
His family, naturally, is proud.
“He made a lot of effort and he had a lot of motivation, just like all of the contestants,” said his father, Mahesh Patil. “These kids are one in a million — they’re unique, hard-working, and yet they still remain laid back. They’re just really nice people.”
And whether Chinmay wins the competition one day or not, his father thinks the experience will only help him in the future.
“It’s important to be informed about the world and what is going on around us,” Mahesh said. “That’s how you grow up to make better decisions in life.”
In addition to Vanya and Chinmay, two Santa Fe Trail Middle School students, Sam Mugo and Andrew Booze, will be heading to Atlanta to represent Kansas at the National History Bee that starts June 6.
The Olathe School District is thrilled about the exposure.
“Here we are in Olathe, in the middle of the United States, and we have all these kids doing amazing things on a national level,” said Deputy Superintendent Alison Banikowski. “These young people are setting the world on fire and putting the Olathe School District on the map. We are so proud and excited for them.”
She thinks one reason local students are doing so well in bees is because the district’s curriculum focuses on foundational education, such as spelling and history.
“We don’t want to take all the credit because these kids have great families and phenomenal talent,” Banikowski said. “But I’d like to think we’re doing something right.”
The district encourages schools to promote nationwide competitions, whether they’re about math or the culinary arts, Banikowski said. Plus, Olathe is always guaranteed a slot in the national spelling bee because its local bee is sponsored by The Olathe News, The Star’s sister publication.
“It’s important to put these opportunities out there because they can only help the students,” Banikowski said. “It ignites passion in kids.”