Top High School Debaters Tackle Current Events During Baylor Workshop

July 25, 2002

by Jenifer Fergason, Student Newswriter

For more than 60 years, Baylor University has invited high school students to participate in its formidable debate program - one of the oldest and most successful in the nation - so it wasn't surprising to find some of the nation's top young debaters spending part of their summer researching and discussing the day's hottest issues during the Baylor Debaters' Workshop.

More than 200 students from Texas and other states such as California and Virginia attended the debate workshops, which were held July 8-19 on the Baylor campus. Students also had the option to stay for a third "Sic 'Em Bears Week" for advanced training in argumentation and debating.

With a rich tradition of debate that began in 1850, Baylor's record of excellence in competition is passed on each summer as high school debaters learn to develop their researching skills, argument construction, refutation, judge adaptation and cross examination.

Baylor debaters have won three national titles, scores of regional titles, and numerous local and individual awards during the program's storied past, said Dr. Karla Leeper, director of the Baylor debate workshops and national president of the American Forensics Association. The program also has produced many prominent debaters, she added, including former Texas Gov. Ann Richards and other top elected officials, judges, prominent attorneys and academicians.


Participating in debate benefits high school students by teaching them how to research, how to write material into an argumentative process, and how to present their viewpoints and hard facts, Leeper said. Making a strong standpoint in an argumentative debate also helps students develop critical thinking skills and practice making statements when least expected. Learning all of these skills helps kids increase their self-esteem and allows them to confidently express themselves, she added.

"High school students actively competitive in debate have completed the equivalent of an honors thesis, and likewise an undergraduate involved in debate by their senior year has completed the equivalent of writing a master's thesis," Leeper said.

The Baylor debate camp was divided into two sections: a Policy Workshop, which focused on public health services for mental health care, and the Lincoln Douglas Workshop, which focused its value proposition debate on the relationship between business and society. Students could participate in debate on policy, value proposition or both, with classes within the two sections offered in novice, intermediate and championship levels.

Through both workshops, students interacted in at least 10 practice debates with fellow high school debaters, under the tutelage of some of the nation's top debate coaches. Among the staff was Leeper, associate professor of communication studies and The Glenn R. Capp Professor of Forensics at Baylor. A finalist at the National Debate Tournament in 1985, she used her expertise to coach victorious teams at the University of Texas and the University of Kansas before coming to Baylor in 1992.

Other coaches included Jon Bruschke, who was a triumphant debater at California State University in Fullerton, coached nationally winning teams at the University of Utah and now serves as the assistant director of forensics at Baylor; and Bill Trapani and Rod Phares, who were nationally successful debaters for Baylor and competed in the elimination rounds at the National Debate Tournament in 1991 and 1992.


Although students come to the workshops from all over the U.S., a number of Waco middle and high school students are actively involved in debate and in the Baylor workshops through their participation in Project Democracy through GEAR UP Waco, a comprehensive, collaborative initiative focused on preparing at-risk students academically and socially for college.

"The main function of the program is to find ways to use the resources in the community to get kids interested to attend school beyond high school," Leeper said.

GEAR UP Waco is funded by a $6 million federal grant from the Department of Education and includes such partners as Baylor, Texas State Technical College, McLennan Community College, Communities in Schools/McLennan County Youth Collaboration, Waco I.S.D., Waco Foundation and the City of Waco. Project Democracy students attend Lake Air, Tennyson and G.L. Wiley middle schools and Carver Academy, with the program expanding in the future to include University and Brazos middle schools.

Baylor students, along with Leeper who serves as project director, spend several hours a week helping middle school students develop skills basic to speech and debate, academic achievement and democratic participation. Students also are encouraged by Project Democracy to open their minds and discuss issues that affect them, such as school violence, right to privacy and school vouchers.

The success of Project Democracy has been celebrated as far away as the nation's capital, Leeper said, when members of the Carver Academy debate team appeared at the GEAR UP National Conference July 19 in Washington, D.C.

For more information on Baylor's debate program, visit the department of communication studies' web site at, which also includes a link to the GEAR UP Waco program.

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