Highland debate team shines in spite of challenges

By Adam Wood

I had the privilege of traveling last week as a chaperone with a group of young men and women from the Highland High School debate and speech team who had qualified to compete in the National Forensics League’s national competition in Kansas City, Kan.   The team represented the Gate City exceptionally well, and our community has reason to be enormously proud of our team.

I am a novice debate parent, so to bring other “novices” up to speed, speech and debate requires rigorous study on the part of its participants in preparation to engage in public discourse about a wide range of current world events and topics in competitive settings.

Debate contests take place throughout the school year, and students earn National Forensics League points for wins and placements in various speech and debate disciplines and formats.  As with sports, there are several levels of competition in which kids must compete successfully to advance; including local, regional, state and national qualification contests. Only the absolute cream of the crop students from all around the world qualify and are invited to participate in “nationals” or “nats” (China fielded 15 full teams!), and most schools do not qualify ANYONE for this top-tier competition.  Highland, coached by Angela Stephens and Miles Stirewalt, qualified 13 kids!

The level of competition at “nats” was intense, and the kids were nothing short of brilliant.  Individual and team competitors were judged based upon their ability to think critically, speak eloquently, and persuade a diverse audience.  Our students’ vocabulary, the flow and cadence of their speech, their ability to link facts to make cohesive arguments, their knowledge of significant current and historical world events and issues, their ability to understand and cite primary sources to support their arguments from memory, their physical presentation and last but not least, adherence to very specific sets of rules governing proper speaking and presentation formats for each event impressed me beyond words.

In all but one of the debate formats, competitors have little or no advance notice as to either which topic or which side of an issue they must present.  Where else can you find kids who cite texts from Plato to Homer, Mark Twain to C.S. Lewis, Time Magazine and the Wall Street Journal and hundreds of other books and periodicals giving author names and dates as part of their citations to support their positions??  Where else can you find kids with in-depth knowledge of world events and issues that can argue convincingly for or against any one of hundreds of topics on just a moment’s notice??

I am sorry to admit that I was expecting 5,000 nerdy, gangly and awkward kids to be fumbling with backpacks and pencil holders at the competition…but the reality could not have been more different.  These were exceptionally well adjusted, confident, intelligent, driven, articulate, well-rounded kids who know how to think and who, in my opinion, are the epitome of teenage success stories.  I witnessed true academic and social excellence this past week, unlike anything I have ever seen or even imagined possible from 15-18 year olds.  Smart is cool, two thumbs up to the awesome kids and coaches of the Highland debate team, THANK YOU for sharing your week with me, you are a joy to be around!!

Unfortunately, the entire event was slightly tainted for me as I realized just how little support our kids receive from our school district compared to kids in other districts.  Throughout the week, I visited with dozens of coaches and teams from around the country and discovered with dismay that the Highland team was competing with disadvantages that no other nationally competitive team was encumbered with, all of which are created by a severe lack of funding.

Without exception, every other team I encountered was fully funded by their districts for the entry fees and travel expenses to every competition in which they entered throughout the year prior to nationals.  In contrast, the entire budget allocated by our district for debate wasn’t enough to cover the cost of one single event of the 15 in which our kids participated.  The total budget for the Highland team was $1,400–about the amount needed for entry fees for EACH event, without any allowance for travel expenses.  In order to help offset as much of the expense load as possible, our kids spent countless hours fundraising all year long.  I am not against kids earning part of their way for their activities, but the stressful situation created by the district’s outrageous lack of funding created two major setbacks for our students.

First, time spent fundraising is time not spent studying, and each hour spent not studying places our team at a disadvantage to teams that can focus on one thing and one thing only:  preparation for competitions.  It was obvious at nationals that each team present was filled with kids who are completely dedicated to their studies that do not engage in many distractions.  Our students are just as willing to study, and I know first-hand that they sacrifice countless hours of sleep and recreation to prepare.  Secondly, the cost of a dozen or more trips plus entry fees each year places debate out of reach for kids who are academically deserving but financially unable.  There was more than one student from Highland who qualified for nationals this year, but was left behind due to lack of funds.  This is shameful.

When I asked what other districts did when a team actually managed to qualify kids for nationals after their regular season had ended (assuming their budgets had been exhausted from the year’s competitions), the unanimous response was “they are totally taken care of.”  Every student, every coach and every chaperone from every team I spoke with had all of their travel expenses and entry fees covered.  School District 25 WOULD NOT ALLOCATE ONE SINGLE PENNY to cover the expenses of competing at nationals. Coaches, kids and chaperones paid out-of-pocket for all expenses that exceeded funds raised by the kids themselves earlier in the year.  Our dedicated coach went totally unpaid and unrecognized for the extra time she took from her summer and family.

Other school districts’ mindsets are to reward rather than punish those who had achieved excellence and brought honor and distinction to their communities.   Ours seems not to care—not by their words, but by their actions.

Lest one think that I surely must have been speaking to competitors from large, well funded districts from back east somewhere, or that I only engaged in conversation with a few people, let me assure you that I asked about funding from just about everyone I met.  I visited with people from all over the country, including some from our own back yard.  Our neighboring districts in Blackfoot and Hillcrest, who qualified a total of 5 kids between them, have a separate fund from which they draw in the case that any students qualify for nationals.   Both districts paid for 100% of travel and competition expenses and gave each coach, student and chaperone $250 for food and incidentals for the week—regardless of how many of their kids qualify.

The final major challenge I learned our debate team has is that our coach-to-kid ratio is ridiculously out of whack with the norm.  Highland has one coach and one assistant for  150 kids who participated in the debate club last year.  Our coach was tasked with teaching high school English classes, fundraising approximately $65,000 for the debate club and organizing the logistics of 15 or so local and regional competitions (most of them requiring over night travel) before she could allocate time to her highest and most valuable role of actually coaching and preparing our students for the wide variety of events within speech and debate–15 events total.

Most debate teams have far less kids than Highland’s, and they employ a head coach plus four or five well-qualified assistants to mentor and prepare kids in each of the 15 separate events that make up speech and debate. Some schools have an assistant coach for EACH of the 15 events, and most of the really competitive schools pay world-class experts in addition to their coaching staff to mentor and instruct individual kids to ensure their success.  I recognize that the latter example requires a level of spending which is beyond the scope of what our district might ever be able to do, but I simply wish to share the reality of those whom our kids are asked to compete against, kids our students will soon be competing with in college and the workplace.

I have always felt that you can only teach someone who wants to learn.  Our classrooms have plenty of apathetic kids just passing their time and doing the bare minimum to pass (and sometimes far less).  My experience is that the debate kids are the polar opposite of the “bare minimum to get by” type of student.  They are very highly motivated and recognize the importance of an excellent education.  They want to excel, they are looking to the future and they are more than willing to work.   They are the epitome of what our district says they are all about on their website (www.sd25us) in the “about us” section touting their dedication to do “whatever it takes” to accomplish their vision and mission statements which are full of phrases such as “empower…students to attain high levels of learning”, “high levels of student achievement” and “incorporate relevance into rigorous academic learning experiences”.

The apparent disconnect between what the district claims to be about and what it actually supports seems to be an oversight of catastrophic proportions.  Benjamin Franklin said, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”  I say let’s invest more in the kids that really want to learn so they can reach their fullest potential.

It is appalling to me to see the incredible imbalance of resources dedicated to remedial programs versus programs that foster academic excellence such as the GATE and debate programs.  Why would we strangle the potential of our most advanced kids?  It is also appalling to see that sports programs are funded to the nines when compared to our academic programs. Can you imagine if a basketball or football team won the state championships and were then invited to play at the highest, most prestigious and coveted national competition organized by the NFL or NBA?  An event that would be attended by hundreds of college scouts and at which massive amounts of scholarships would be offered?  Can you imagine that we would tell all of the coaches and players that they had to go on their own time, pay for every cent incurred on the trip and tough cookies for kids who earned a spot on the team but couldn’t afford to go? This is exactly what our debate team and coaches have just experienced.

I am not arguing that we shouldn’t support our sports programs, we should; but it is ludicrous and shameful that we don’t support academic excellence AT LEAST on par with, if not over, every other type of achievement in our schools.  Each district has a finite amount of resources that they must work with, and districts show what they really value by what they fund. I, for one, feel that programs that have a solid track record for producing the highest percentages of college bound kids, earning the highest grades and college entry test scores and earning the highest per capita amount of scholarship money for higher education should trump all other programs when it comes to funding.  Am I crazy for this notion that schools should first and foremost be about schooling?

I said in a previous article that debate has provided my own student with more growth opportunities than the cumulative benefit she has received in all of her other subjects and activities.  That is an incredibly bold statement, but I stand by it wholeheartedly.  I am very grateful to Mrs. Angela Stephens for her unfailing energy and unwavering devotion to the kids of this community.  She will be sorely missed next year, and I apologize to her on behalf of our community for the utter lack of support she has been given by our school district for a job she has done monumentally well.  The truth is that Mrs. Stephens has given far, far more than anyone could have ever asked of her and that it is very unlikely that anyone who takes her position will be willing or able to devote the energy to our kids that she has.  Nor should we expect them to.

I ask; no, I BEG the powers that be at District 25 to please reconsider their budget allocations for academic programs, particularly GATE and debate.  These programs have track records of excellence that make them valuable and therefore worthy of support of our district and our town.  I believe there is truth and wisdom in the adage that it takes a community to raise a child, and I so also ask all retirees, parents and businesses who might like to support the debate team with time or funding to reach out and do so today.  People are desperately needed as mentors, judges, logistical assistants and fundraisers.  Any support you can give in time and resources would be most welcome, and you can contact me at 208-406-8968 or Miles Stirewalt at Highland High School.


Adam Wood is a local businessman with four children in the Pocatello-Chubbuck School District. He serves the community as a coach and assistant coach for several sports. He is also a youth leader in his church and volunteers as an assistant to the Highland High School debate team.