Last year's state champ in the National Geographic Bee won't be able to compete in this year's contest due to a little-publicized rules change, his parents said.
Matt Savage, a home-schooled seventh-grader from Francestown, had already won a school-level Bee at Great Brook School in Antrim. But after his win, officials with the Bee called and told parents Larry and Diane Savage that he couldn't go on to the state contest because of rules governing how home-schoolers can enter the event.
"We want to follow the rules, but it would have been appropriate to advertise the rules," Mrs. Savage said, adding that a well-publicized notice of the change on the Bee's Web site would have helped. "The fact it wasn't (well-advertised) meant Matt, and I'm sure other children as well, were disqualified."
Mrs. Savage said she was reluctant to go forward with her story, but she also hated the thought of other home-schooled children going through the same trouble.
"Seeing my son's heartbreak, and not being able to defend their actions other than saying, 'Life isn't fair and sometimes people change rules' — how do you explain something like that? You can't," she said.
But officials with the Bee said the rules were made quite clear, both on the Web site and on the first page of the rule book, and said the teacher administering the local event failed to notice the rules barring Matt from taking part. They also said that back in early September, they sent guidelines about student eligibility to each school taking part in the Bee.
"We're sorry this happened," said Mary Lee Elden, the National Geographic Society's director of geography competitions, "but our lawyers tell me I have to follow the same rules for everybody. If you don't, that's when a contest becomes unfair.
"It's pretty clear by the rules," Elden said, regarding the entry qualifications, "and the teacher acknowledged he didn't read it."
The National Geographic Bee is a nationwide contest for students in grades four through eight from around the country. Contests are held at the school, state and national levels, with the winner earning a $25,000 college scholarship.
Matt's disqualification had to do with a change in how home-schoolers take part in the competition. Prior to this year, the Savages said, it was possible for home-schoolers to take part by competing in local competitions held at schools, an option denied to public school students attending a school not hosting a local bee. This year, though, the rule was changed so that home-schoolers could only compete through contests which home-school associations had set up.
Elden said rules for the Bee were frequently changed between years, and this particular change simply clarified the rules governing entry requirements. Both sides agreed that those administering the local event didn't pick up on the rule.
"We're trying to reach out to all different groups to make sure the kids can take part," Elden said.
Mrs. Savage said the rule was mentioned — but it was mentioned in the rule book, which they didn't have, and also on the frequently asked questions page of the Bee's Web site. According to Mrs. Savage, parents whose children had competed in the Bee before wouldn't likely check the FAQ section for information, but would have noticed a large front-page advisory.
The end result was that Matt won the local Bee, but couldn't take part in the state contest, which is scheduled to be held in Keene on April 1. As the dates for organizing a contest through a home-school association have passed, that means he's out of luck.
"There's nothing we can do," Mrs. Savage said. "We can't go back and do the alternate route."
While Matt was heartbroken at not being able to take part in this year's Bee, his parents said they pledged to do what was necessary if Matt wanted to take part in future competitions.
"If he still wants to next year, we'll find a way to compete through a home-school association," said Mr. Savage.