PITTSBURGH—Just four years ago, then-eighth-grader Heather Lawler had no idea how to spell Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's last name. She would often eliminate the "e" after the "o," or place an extra vowel before the "l."
Sometimes, she even wrote out the last six letters as "burger."
Now a high school senior, Lawler is just one of thousands of Pittsburgh students who will graduate with the ability to spell Roethlisberger in the 97th percentile, a statistic that puts her head and shoulders above millions of students across the United States.
"If you look at the data, our students were correctly spelling Roethlisberger only 43 percent of the time during the quarterback's rookie season," said Pittsburgh mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who called the 2004 statistic an embarrassment. "In just five years, we have increased that number to 92 percent. That's 54 percent better than students in California, 35 percent better than those in Oklahoma, and 96 percent better than those in the Cleveland area, who tend to spell Roethlisberger by adding the letters 'u,' 'c,' and 'k' after the letter 's.'"
"The bottom line is the Pittsburgh school system is giving its students a leg up on the competition, not only in America, but throughout the world," Ravenstahl added. "Our kids correctly spelled Roethlisberger 12 times more often than all the students in Europe and Asia combined."
Pittsburgh teachers said that in 2005 they noticed an alarming trend: Students stopped using Roethilsberger's last name in essays and papers, instead referring to the quarterback by his easy-to-spell nickname, "Big Ben." That summer, the Pittsburgh school board took action, eliminating various art courses, American history, and Advanced Placement calculus in favor of a rigorous new curriculum focused squarely on getting its students back on track.
Instead of taking world history, seventh-graders were enrolled in Spelling Roethlisberger I. Geometry and trigonometry were replaced by Advanced Roethlisberger-Memorizing. And rather than "waste time," as Ravenstahl said, in AP chemistry and English, juniors and seniors were required to take an intensive Roethlisberger colloquia, in which they would spend a three-hour class period not only discussing the spelling of Roethlisberger, but the spelling of the names of other Steelers players, such as strong safety Troy Polamalu and left guard Chris Kemoeatu.
According to biology teacher Mark Irwin, who also serves as an interdisciplinary Interpretations of the Spelling of Roethlisberger IV instructor, the current curriculum gives graduating students the skills essential to becoming contributing members of the Pittsburgh community.
"When I was in school, every single one of us knew how to spell Bradshaw," Irwin told reporters. "Granted, Roethlisberger is more difficult, but the world in general is becoming an increasingly demanding place, and we have to prepare our students to meet that demand."
"I'm just happy with how the parents have taken initiative on the home front," Irwin added. "Some of these kids come into eighth grade already knowing how to spell Roethlisberger, which makes things a lot easier on us, and allows teachers to develop their skills even further."
High school principal Dr. Allen Pembrook said that seniors in his school spend the entire second half of the year gearing up to take their RSATs, or Roethlisberger Standardized Assessment Test. During this time, all other courses—even Steelers Defenses 1970 to Present—take a backseat as students prepare for the 17-question exam.
"The first three questions are pretty easy," said high school senior Brent Gerson, referring to the portion of the test in which students are asked to give the first letter of the quarterback's first name, then the second, and finally the third. "The last 14 questions about the last name are pretty hard. There is no letter bank or anything, and it's graded on full completion. But if you remember what you worked on for the last six years, and the student sitting in front of you remembers to wear his Roethlisberger jersey, you should be fine."
Thus far the new curriculum has paid off for students entering the job market, especially those who wish to remain in the city after graduation.
"If you ask me if I would rather hire a kid from Boston with a 4.0 GPA who puts a 'u' after the 'b' in Roethlisberger, or a kid who can spell the name correctly, I'm going to hire the kid who can spell Roethlisberger," said Pittsburgh attorney Martin Snyder, adding that clients in Southwestern Pennsylvania appreciate, above all, a lawyer with a working knowledge of how to spell the names of the entire 2005 Super Bowl team. "Anyone can go to law school and pass a bar exam, but knowing that there is a silent 'h' after the 'w' in Cowher? Well, that takes somebody special."