For PCHS students success isn’t up for debate
Debate team, flourishing, seeks state title
November 29, 2016
When Abi Kretschmar was a freshman, she was one of only a handful of students on the Park City High School debate team.
Three years later, those times are now a distant memory. Kretschmar, a senior, has watched as the team has grown steadily in participation — there are now more than 70 members — and in success. And this year, the students say, is shaping up to be their best yet.
"It's been really amazing to watch people realize what a cool activity this is and how life-changing it can be to engage in debate," she said. "It's also cool to watch people who start as novices start to become more confident. That's really fun."
According to Sharon Ellsworth-Nielson, a PCHS teacher and the debate coach, one factor has driven the team's rapid improvement. The students, she said, are completely invested. The upperclassmen have done all they could to encourage younger students to join, then taught them how to debate. In past years, new students would learn under pressure, in the gauntlet of a tournament. Now, by the time they ever reach a debate stage, they've practiced with other students for hours.
The results speak for themselves.
"That has set up a cycle of success," Ellsworth-Nielson said. "All of the essential requirements for a novice debater to learn and to be successful are being managed mostly by the advanced students. They are all over the teaching. The kids are just firing them up."
For Adam Hickey, a junior debater who joined the team as a freshman, teaching the younger students seems natural. After all, the experienced students know better than anyone what it's like to be novice debaters, and they understand how best to get them to the next level. The student-to-student interactions have allowed the team to form tight friendships.
"It helps a lot with getting younger students into the program," he said. "Being taught by someone closer to your age, who shares a lot of the same problems and situations, it creates a bond between the leaders of the team and the people who join."
Those bonds have led to success on the debate stage, and the team is thirsting for more. PCHS has developed a reputation throughout the state for being fierce, Ellsworth-Nielson said. And for students like Kretschmar, who helped usher in a new era for the team, it would be satisfying to finally achieve the thing that has narrowly eluded them over the past two years: a state title.
"That would be awesome, especially for those of us who were on the nine-person team (three years ago)," Kretschmar said. "It would be a recognition of how hard we've worked and how much we've improved over the years."
For Ellsworth-Nielson, who has worked tirelessly to shepherd the program to its current height, winning a championship at the state competition in March would be gratifying. But even that would pale in comparison to what she witnesses daily, she said.
Students enter the program shy and uncertain, then quickly find their footing and flourish. Within months, they become confident in themselves. Additionally, they learn how to look at both sides of an issue, a skill that has rarely been more important. Helping change the lives of students and churning out ones ready to be productive citizens is better than any trophy, she said.
"They have personal beliefs, but they're willing to allow someone else to feel differently and hear that," she said. "And in this time, right now, isn't civil discourse a goal we need to strive for? Being able to allow other people to have their opinions, have a civil discussion, and not end up fighting. I think it's just a vital skill."