It’s not up for debate: Park City High School team earns second place in state competition
The high school speech and debate program teaches crucial life skills to students
Great conversations happen around Elaine Murray’s dinner table on Parleys Lane. Discussions about current affairs such as the role of the press and topics like universal child care or outer space exploration aren’t uncommon for the household, which has had all three boys participate in the Park City High School speech and debate program.
Murray appreciates the discourse, saying she is always in awe at what her children know. She, too, finds herself bringing up subjects such as term limits for Supreme Court justices or the Artemis Accords with her friends after having spent a Saturday judging a debate competition.
The high school debate team earned second place out of 26 schools in region five at the Utah High School Activities Association state debate competition on March 11. Head coach Anna Williams, who also teaches English as a second language at the high school, said it was a very close match, with a nine-point loss, and a wonderful accomplishment given the team’s fourth-place finish last year.
Most of the Park City High School competitors finished within the top quartile of their events, contributing the points the debate team needed to make it to the top, she said.
This was Williams’ first year as head coach after becoming involved when her daughter joined the program in 2016. She stepped up amid a time of uncertainty as turnover with coaches was high and funding was limited, taking its toll on the team.
“It’s been difficult … so I kind of inherited the program because I didn’t want to see it die,” she said. “It’s too important to not be here for the kids. For many of the kids, debate is a safe space.”
Unlike other districts, the high school speech and debate club is an after-school program rather than a class that’s built into the school day. This means other schools can pay coaches to teach a class for students to enroll in, Williams said, while the high school team primarily relies on funding from the Park City Education Foundation and outside donations to keep the program alive.
Preparations for the season began in August with dedicated practice days from 2:30 to 4:30 on Wednesdays. There are about 40 students on the team who range between the 10th to 12th grades. Many of the members also appear to be more invested in speech and debate this year as they stay late on Mondays and Fridays to put more time into their work.
Students are tasked with researching relevant topics that typically change each month, depending on current events. Through this, they learn how to make effective arguments by presenting facts and evidence. They also develop critical thinking and listening skills in addition to public speaking.
Speech and debate help people learn how to be unbiased and how to engage in civil discourse. Students must be prepared to argue either side of an issue during a competition, requiring them to gather information from multiple sources and consider different perspectives.
“You don’t know what this younger generation is capable of, and they will astound you,” Williams said. “One thing about them that I think all of us can learn from is that they really embrace diversity, they embrace inclusivity and they are open-minded unlike many of the adults around them.”
She said the high school students, who describe themselves as a “happy group of nerds,” have a deep love for learning.
Murray’s youngest son found his niche in the informative speaking category, which has helped him develop more confidence. Her oldest, who is now a freshman studying international affairs at George Washington University, excelled in traditional debate.
Through this, he learned how to speak clearly, remove filler words and avoid repetition. Now, he works as a DJ for a college radio station. Even Murray’s middle child, a senior at Park City High School who has a knack for math and science, spent a year on the debate and speech team.
Murray considers speech and debate to be a life skill – and something that should be required in schools alongside physical education or health – but said it often goes under the radar.
She’s taken on a large fundraising role to help ensure the program’s vitality. Murray helped raise money for a coach last year and organized a campaign through Live PC, Give PC to secure additional funding for the high school speech and debate team. She rallied people across the community, ranging from parents and alumni to pickleball players who don’t have any children in the School District.
Murray this year surpassed the previous amount she raised, and hopes to someday reach her hefty fundraising goal.
“We’re so thankful because prior to fundraising, things were so stressful for the debate team,” she said. “How do you focus on the important things if you’re stressed about money? I think that’s another reason why they got silver, and barely missed gold, because they didn’t have to focus on survival – they could focus on debate.”
The speech and debate team is also in need of volunteer judges. Murray and Williams acknowledged it is a large time commitment, but emphasized how eye-opening it can be to watch the students masterfully craft arguments or articulately explain an issue they’re passionate about as they compete. When people leave, the women said, they often feel inspired and optimistic about the future. Sometimes, they learn something, too.
The arsenic-and-lead-containing soil has been a contentious issue for the district, which piled it onto the junior high campus in actions that were later discovered to be in violation of a covenant with the Environmental Protection Agency.
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