Debate team readies for season

There's a new team in town and they're already racking up points this season.

Points on nuclear energy, foreign policy and climate change, that is.

The Ashland High School Debate Team hopes to study their way to the state competition this year and advance to nationals.

Although the debate program has existed at the school for about 30 years, each year yields a new team of students who commit to practicing almost daily in order to travel on weekends to tournaments on the West Coast.

"I call it brain sport, because these kids travel all over the place and, just on the scale of socialization, they come up against all sorts of teams, with vary levels and abilities," said team coach Wendy Werthaiser-Kent.

Werthaiser-Kent also teaches two periods of debate class at Ashland High, which grooms students for tournaments. About 15 experienced students form the core debate team group, but any of the 60 students enrolled in the class may travel with the team to tournaments, provided they practice regularly and keep their grades up — just like the athletes at the high school.

"They do it because they love it. These kids are not these geeky kids that have no idea what's going on out there in the world. These are great kids who are articulate and quick on their feet," Werthaiser-Kent said.

The debate team draws from all social sets at the high school and promotes camaraderie, team captain Tim Harper said.

Since joining the team three years ago, the senior has developed logic and critical thinking skills that he now hopes to apply in college, while he pursues his dream of becoming an environmental lawyer or district attorney.

"Debate is especially important in this day and age of extreme political strife globally and nationally. As Obama would say, 'we have the ability to change,' and a lot of high school students don't really understand that they have that ability. But they do. We will be the people shaping the future," the 17-year-old Harper said.

Students who become serious about debate practice during the summer too, attending weeklong camps to hone their speaking skills.

Team vice-captain Tim Borgerson attended debate camp this summer to gear up for his policy debates this year on alternative energy. He and Tim Harper will be partners in debate tournaments, competing against two other people. Many of the competitions, organized by The National Forensic League, call for partner debates.

"You develop a sense of community on the debate team," Tim Borgerson, a junior at Ashland High, said. "There's no real intellectual activity like it offered at the high school. It's a way you can express your creativity and show a lot of your knowledge and research abilities."

Experienced debate team members help to teach their novice colleagues during class time. Students may repeat the class each year, and they must be enrolled in the class to participate in tournaments. The Ashland School District allocates funds from the Youth Activities and Academics Levy to help pay for tournament-related costs.

Involvement in the program has paid off for students seeking entrance to top colleges or public-speaking related careers, Werthaiser-Kent said. One of the program's more prominent graduates, Winona LaDuke, received her degree from Harvard in 1982, and has since become a noted author, activist and Green Party Vice Presidential candidate.

Seven students qualified for the national tournament and the entire team received a close second place at the state competition last school year. The previous year the team won the state championship.

A graduate from last year's team, Sylvain Brown, said the program improved his academic record and influenced him to pursue communication studies this year at Southern Oregon University.

In his spare time, the 19-year-old plans to help out as an assistant coach to the team.

"It's different than a normal sport, because a normal sport is about 'how fast can you run?' This is a mental thing. It's about, 'how fast can you think on your feet?'" Brown said.

In addition to boosting brainpower, the team can also yield close-knit friendships, said Jane Eisenberg, 16.

"Doing the debate team was probably the smartest thing I've done in high school. It really helped me with public speaking in other classes, but I also got instantaneously like 30 friends who are my best friends now," she said.

"It's also fun to be talking with someone and say, 'hey, I know more about that than you.'"

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