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Who wants to argue?: BHS is one of several schools getting back into debate

BEMIDJI—Bemidji High School is one of several rural schools in northern Minnesota that are adding—or re-adding—a debate team.

School Board members last month approved a plan to start a debate team at the high school. Tom Lucas, the new team's presumptive coach pending a district candidate search, said he hopes 6-8 students sign up for its inaugural year. He's scheduled a pair of informational meetings next week to give interested students an idea of what organized debate is like.

But Bemidji isn't alone: schools in Fergus Falls, Rogers, Duluth, Moorhead and Hawley have all added teams in the past year or two, according to Minnesota State High School League staff.

Some, such as the team in Grand Rapids, endured for years as the rural debate scene dried up amid budget pressures that compounded as teams were shuttered.

The longstanding "Policy" debate format has grown increasingly expensive and time-intensive. It often demands that students attend expensive camps to hone their skills—high-level policy debaters speak upward of 300 words per minute to pack as much information as they can into their allotted time, a strategy designed to make it tough for their opponents to rebut each argument before their own time runs out.

"A lot of schools just failed to keep up," said Rick Herder, an associate professor of communications studies at Southwest Minnesota State University, who coached debate at Staples (Minn.) High School and in Naples, Fla.

Many experienced debate alumni often become lawyers, doctors, or political types rather than teachers, where they'd be more likely to to coach a debate team themselves. And smaller teams that don't have a lot of alumni or parent volunteers have to pay for their own judges to listen to the precise, rapid-fire argumentation.

"The football coach at my school doesn't have to go out and hire referees for the football game, and the baseball coach doesn't have to go hire umpires," said Chris McDonald, the president of the Minnesota Debate Teachers Association who directs the debate team at Eagan High School. "Debate, you actually have to provide a number of officials to cover the number of entries on your team."

As expenses mounted and rural debate teams faded, those that remained had to travel farther for competitions, which meant higher expenses and a tougher time staying in the black.

It's all resulted in what's been called the "donut effect"—inner-city and rural schools shed their debate programs while relatively monied ones in the suburbs carried on.

"It's an educationally intense and rigorous activity," Herder said. "It's absolutely worthwhile, it's just that the bar is so high that very few people can afford to invest in the activity."

Coming back

So why the resurgence?

Debate team backers pegged a handful of factors: rising demand for students who can create and support well-reasoned arguments, small-but-significant grants from the Minnesota Debate Teachers Association to help fledgling teams such as Bemidji's get off the ground, and two new debate formats that are more accessible than their predecessors.

"Public Forum" and "Congressional" debates are less time-intensive, require fewer students and judges, and can be freer-flowing than the longstanding policy debate format whose demands for time and money can set such a high barrier to entry. (Some coaches reputedly equate a year of competitive policy debate to a college degree or a stint in graduate school.)

Public forum, for instance, is designed to cater to emotional and logical appeals rather than assembling an overwhelming body of evidence, Lucas said.

"Rather than evidentiary-type situations where you're trying to change policy, you would be arguing on issues that would be...more accessible to people outside of the activity and outside of the policy realm," he explained. "Someone from the community should theoretically be able to judge a round of public forum debate because the appeal that they're making to you is more of a visceral, kind of human appeal, as opposed to something where you're trying to score points with judges in a very refined format."

McDonald said he loves policy debate but understands the need for all students to have an avenue into the activity.

"The kid who wants to dedicate a lot of their time to the research and understanding of issues and policy debate and can go to a debate institute and wants to compete, well that's great. We have that opportunity for them," he said. "We also have to have opportunities for the kids who don't want this to just become sort of their only focus."

Down for debate?

Bemidji High School will hold two informational meetings for the new Lumberjacks' debate team on Tuesday-Wednesday next week, at about 3:15 p.m. in Room 2203 at the high school.

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education and health for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He is a Minneapolis native and a 2009 graduate of St. John's University. Before moving to Bemidji, Bowen covered education, local politics, crime, and everything in between for the Perham Focus in Perham, Minnesota, and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis.

(218) 333-9798
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