One thing isn’t up for debate: The Niles Township High School District 219 debate program has exceeded all expectations in its first two years.
In the fall of 2010, Niles West teacher Eric Oddo started a debate team at Niles West High School after years without one. The team immediately met with success.
In the fall of 2011, Niles North got its own debate team under the leadership of Katie Gjerpen.
Now, in the fall of 2012, all incoming freshmen will have to take a public speaking course during their high school careers, and an “Intro to Debate” class will be one of several possibilities that meet the requirement, as well as an honors-level debate course for members of the debate teams. The district also will host a tournament this fall that will help winning teams qualify for the national Tournament of Champions.
The Niles Township Invitational will be held Sept. 14-16.
Oddo said that the status of the tournament means that it will draw teams from all over the Midwest and perhaps beyond.
The debate team members will likely run into some friends from the summer there, as more than half of the returning members of each team are attending elite university-based debate camps and institutes.
The expectations for those students are high.
“We’re not focusing on winning at the state or regional level,” said Scott Dahlberg, the district’s social studies director. “We’re focusing on winning at the national level.”
District 219 school board president Robert Silverman applauded the goal, but said the real victory isn’t a tournament trophy.
“It’s not about the win,” he said. “It’s about what preparing for the win does for the kids.”
More kids will be able to participate with the help of new assistant debate coaches being hired for both schools, both with national winning experience.
District 219 Superintendent Nanciann Gatta said the district could not have attracted those teachers without the early success of the program.
“When a new reality is in fact realized, it changes the whole dynamic,” she said.
Gatta couldn’t help crowing a bit as she recalled the naysayers who weighed in when she talked about starting a new debate program at the schools.
“People told me, ‘Nanciann, debate is gone from District 219 because we don’t have kids who like debate,’” she said. “I’ve seen those kids after school doing the most in depth research, and having a wonderful time.”
The schools recruit freshmen into debate when they sign up for classes before the year starts, especially now that counselors are talking about what classes they want to take to fulfill the public speaking requirement.
Other students come in through word-of-mouth from their friends or favorite teachers.
School board member Carlton Evans said it shouldn’t be hard to recruit students for debate.
“I never met a teenager who didn’t like to argue,” he said.