Speech and debate team finds foothold at Tupelo High

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Three years ago, speech and debate was a fledgling program at Tupelo High School trying to get established.
Today, it has flourished. It now has about 30 members, nearly four times the original membership of eight when it first started during the 2009-10 school year, and it recently earned charter status, the highest membership honor from the National Forensic League. That honor is based on the number of members and how they score during competitions.
The club will send six members to nationals this year, making a total of 17 students it has sent in its three years.
“Every year we seem to get bigger,” said junior Abby Hunt, one of two students who have been in the club since the beginning. “… A lot of people heard from friends. Now the whole campus knows we’re here.”
Club members compete in various events which test their ability to either make speeches or debate an argument. They practice and critique each other twice a week and then travel to multiple competitions. The club also hosted its first tournament this spring.
“It has been amazing to watch it spread and grow,” said coach Julie Henderson, who also has been with the team from the beginning but who will be leaving after this year. “We have learned together because we’ve had a lot to learn.”
Senior Abby Grace will compete in congressional debate at the National Forensic League National Tournament in Indianapolis in June. Juniors Gage Angle (congressional debate) and Chase Baccus (original oratory) and freshmen Kimya Jamasbi (original oratory), Morgan Southworth (dramatic performance) and Katelyn Stieg (dramatic performance) will all compete in the National Catholic Forensic League Grand Nationals in Baltimore in late May. All six had to qualify for the national competitions.
The team also had a strong showing at the state championship competition on April 14. Stieg finished second overall in dramatic performance and Baccus was third in Lincoln Douglas debate. Junior Wesley Burcham was third in television commentary and fifth in impromptu speaking.
The team owes its start to former Superintendent Randy Shaver, who was determined to see THS have a speech and debate program when he came to the district.
Angle, the other member who has been with the team since that first year, said individual members have a lot of pride in seeing the program grow.
“With an extracurricular that is so individually oriented, it is good to see such teamwork,” he said.
Henderson credits the students and such attitudes for the progress. She said other teachers also have helped them develop skills that have made them better in speech and debate.
“I think the kids have driven the growth,” she said. “They have told their friends, and this is a great group of kids.”
Many of the team members, however, give the credit to their coach.
“I have to give all of it to Ms. Henderson,” Angle said. “From the beginning, she was always with us.”
The team members also spoke of the skills they have gained from their participation.
“It is a great experience,” Hunt said. “Public speaking skills can be used anywhere, and it is a great skill to have. With this extra training, there is no doubt we will be great speakers in whatever we do.”
Baccus noted much of the preparation takes place outside of school.
“A lot of nights, I stay up until 3 at night trying to make a Lincoln-Douglas debate case better,” he said.
Jamasbi said she and her debate partner, Monica Acosta, often discuss their cases outside of school.
The critical-thinking skills have been important, Grace said.
“I learned things in the classroom, sure, but I know I learned the most from my time in speech and debate,” she said. “One thing I want to accomplish is to make sure our team is in good shape for years to come.”
chris.kieffer@journalinc.com