Waco ISD Debaters Prepare for Season with Baylor Counterparts

Oct. 26, 2005

by Lori Fogleman (254) 710-6275

On Thursday afternoon, more than 75 middle and high school debaters from nine Waco ISD schools will take part in a new initiative between WISD, Baylor's nationally ranked debate team and Baylor Law School.

The debaters and their teachers and coaches will dive into a half-day of training sessions, led by Baylor debate team members and two graduate students, from 1 to 5 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 27, at Baylor Law School.

Before the training begins, Baylor law students will take the debaters on a 30-minute tour of the law school. Sessions then will begin at 1:30 p.m. on such topics as introduction to debate and basic elements of public speaking and speech writing. During the day, students will focus on the overall debate issue of the space shuttle program and its viability in the 21st century.

In another session, Baylor debaters will take the students to the Baylor law library, where they will demonstrate various research methods for finding facts, statistics, quotes and other information to support debate arguments.

Students will be videotaped in another session, as they give "an impromptu speech on a non-threatening topic, like 'What character are you planning to be on Halloween?'" said Dr. Karla Leeper, acting chair of the department of communication studies and The Glenn R. Capp Professor of Forensics at Baylor.

Leeper said that the debate training program is a natural outgrowth of GEAR UP Waco, the collaboration funded by a $6 million grant from the Department of Education that focuses on preparing at-risk students academically and socially for college. The GEAR UP Waco partnership, currently consisting of Baylor, Texas State Technical College, McLennan County Youth Collaboration, Waco ISD and the Waco Foundation, has made considerable strides over the past five years to become a community catalyst for educational change and a leader in college access and awareness both locally and nationally. The initiative currently impacts more than 6,700 students in grades 6-12 in the Waco ISD.

Leeper helped lead Project Democracy, a GEAR UP program that focused on speech and debate.

"Everything we have learned in the GEAR UP program and in academic literature is that the middle school years are the most critical in determining whether a student has the requisite skills to succeed in college," Leeper said. "These students are at an age where you can get them interested in academic work and they're old enough to take that academic work outside the classroom. Speech and debate gives them a chance to voice their opinions. We want to know what you think [about an issue]."

She said the space shuttle topic was chosen because it is multifaceted, crossing the lines of science, public policy and societal priorities.

Leeper will lead the closing session at 4:30 p.m. in the Kronzer Courtroom, as she and the debaters watch a videotape of young debaters discussing the same space shuttle topic. They will judge performances as they learn more about the nuances of successful debate.

The training session is the brainchild of Zandra Swenson, a library media specialist at Tennyson Middle School in Waco and sponsor of the school's debate team. Swenson said she had only "three or four" students participate in her first year as coach. The next year, 18 students took part in debate, and the team itself went from winning nothing at their first UIL speaking event to improving their performances in three subsequent debate tournaments. In their final competition, Swenson's debaters progressed so much that the team finished tied for first place.

In conversations with her team members, Swenson found out that many have aspirations of a career in law. As the wife of Baylor law professor David Swenson and the mother of Baylor debater Jeremy Swenson, Zandra Swenson put the two together and came up with the idea of involving Waco ISD debaters with Baylor students and the law school.

"Among other things, it shows that law school is accessible, and it can happen for them," Swenson said. "If you look around at all the students at the law school, not all of them are there because their parents are paying for it. It reinforces the idea that scholarships are available."

Swenson said response from Waco ISD campuses to the debate training program has been overwhelming. She said she hopes to make the program with Baylor an annual event.

For more information, contact Zandra Swenson at (254) 772-1440. She will be giving the opening session at 1:30 p.m. Thursday but will be available for interviews at 2 p.m. in the Kronzer Courtroom, the large octagonal courtroom at the law school.

Leeper can be reached at (254) 710-6919.

Looking for more news from Baylor University?