A new team at San Benito High School is hard at work, preparing itself for its first competition next month. Fundamentals are routinely stressed by the coach during the Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon practice sessions. Seated in a circle, teammates demonstrate their offensive and defensive skills through opening statements and rebuttals. In this sport, oratory and elocution, not touchdowns, home runs, or three-pointers, determine victory or defeat.
The SBHS Migrant Education Speech and Debate Team was formed in January, after an extensive effort by the high school and the team's coach —social science teacher Chris Lasley — to recruit interested students. Of the 450 students enrolled in the SBHS migrant program, eight—five, freshmen females and three juniors, one female and two males—answered the call.
The U.S. Dept. of Education oversees and funds the Migrant Education Program (MEP). Individual states are then responsible for administering the funds and providing services to migrant students, who are defined as “children who change schools during the year, often crossing school district and state lines, to follow work in agriculture, fishing, dairies, or the logging industry,” according the California Department of Education's website.
Twenty-four regional MEP offices serve the state. School districts within San Benito County belong to Region 1.
This year marks the first time that Region 1 will host a speech and debate regional tournament, explained the event’s coordinator and Santa Clara County Office of Education employee, Veronica Ramos, in an email to BenitoLink.
She noted that the region’s school districts were urged to participate in the March 25 competition. Regional winners will move on to the state tournament in May.
SBHS began its search for a coach last semester. Lasley, who has served as advisor to the school’s Speech and Debate Club for the past three years, heard about the opening, applied, and was hired.
In his telephone interview with BenitoLink, Lasley explained that in the weeks leading up to his team’s debut, he has focused on teaching the “the nuts and bolts of speech and debate, like the basics of argumentation.”
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, the coach led his players through a series of exercises designed to improve their understanding of deductive argument.
Junior Leslie Lopez read from what she had written on 3-by-5-inch index card, “All frogs are amphibians. I have a pet frog named Bill. Bill is an amphibian.” Lasley then asked his team if Lopez’s example met the criteria of deductive argument. They nodded in agreement, citing that her each of her premises were true.
A track and field athlete, Lopez never considered joining a speech and debate team, but thanks to several encouraging teachers she decided to “try something new.”
“They motivated me to take advantage of the of the opportunity,” she said.
Described by Lasley as “very loquacious,” the junior admitted her new sport can be mentally taxing.
“Gathering information and being able to talk about a certain subject without hesitation is challenging,” Lopez said, adding, “But the skills I’ve learned I can apply to my classes and life in general.”
Lasley, who is also Lopez’s U.S. history teacher, firmly believes that the skills and experience gained through speech and debate bolster academic success.
And he hopes to one day see the formation of a program that rivals the school’s most successful sports teams.
“I want a formal and growing debate program here at the high school, an academic equivalent to a football team,” Lasley said. With players such as junior Andrés Medina, who revels in persuasion and competition, Lasley may well be on his way.
“Giving a very effective speech and seeing a person change his or her opinion is really cool," Medina said. "I’m here to win."
The Region 1 Migrant Education Speech and Debate Tournament will be held on Saturday, March 25 at Latino College Prep Academy in San Jose. The competition begins at 8:30 a.m. and ends at 4:30 p.m.
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