Evanston Township High School’s Urban Debate Team earns key wins at Chicago competition

Lauren Caruba

The Evanston Township High School Urban Debate Team competed for the first time in the Chicago Debate League Championship, held two weeks ago at Northwestern, and became the third school in the past decade to win top speaker awards in both the varsity and junior varsity divisions.

ETHS won the tournament in the junior varsity division and both varsity and junior varsity competitors earned first place speaker awards, marking an important milestone for the young debate program, which started in its current form about five years ago.

This was the first time ETHS qualified for the annual competition, which is limited to the top schools in each of the Chicago Debate League’s four high school conferences.

ETHS sophomore Makaia Barnes, along with partner Esther Isaac, beat Northside College Preparatory High School to win the JV division championship.

“Winning was a huge accomplishment for the entire Evanston debate team and the program,” Barnes said. “It was the first time in a really long time that a suburban school has won a city championship.”

Policy debate competitions involve pairs of students who extensively research a broad topic to form a relevant argument. The National Forensic League determines the topics at the beginning of the year based on a national poll. This year’s topic was whether or not the United States should expand its space exploration programs.

NU hosted the preliminary rounds of the Chicago Debate League Championship this year on March 23 and 24. About 350 students from the Chicago area participated in the competition.

The top speaker award, which is based on the cumulative rankings competition that judges give students’ speaking ability, is awarded to one student from each division. This year’s top speakers were both ETHS students – Isaac in the JV division and junior Olivia Chandrasekhar in the varsity division.

“It was nice because we were able to represent in the speaker awards,” Chandrasekhar said. “We have made more of a name within the city of Chicago.”

Over the course of the 2011-2012 academic year, the ETHS Urban Debate Team won five tournaments at the JV level. The team won speakers awards in every single event at the JV level and in the majority of events in the varsity tournaments, said Kamasi Hill, the team’s head coach.

The team’s success at the city tournament and their strong performance over the course of the school year demonstrates the growth of the team, which was founded only a few years ago, Hill said.

“There were times where students struggled to really buy into what it actually took to be successful in debate,” said Hill, who also teaches history at ETHS. “Those days are pretty much long gone.”

Barnes said this year’s team was very committed, increasing practices from two to three days a week. She added that the supportive, close-knit nature of the team helped students achieve in competitions.

The Urban Debate Team is one of three debate teams at ETHS. Chandrasekhar said her team is different because the research topics are relevant beyond the academic debate setting.

“As a team, we’re really politically and culturally aware,” Chandrasekhar said. “Our team is really focused on actual views and actual logic and making debate about something that connects to the real world.”

Although the Chicago Debate League Championship marked the end of the debate team’s official season, Hill will take four debaters to compete in the National Catholic Forensic League’s Grand National Tournament, which will be held in Baltimore over Memorial Day weekend. The trip will be jointly funded by ETHS and the students’ parents, Hill added.

The competition in Baltimore will involve debates, speeches and dramatization and interpretation of literature. Hill said the different subject matter and debating styles of the competition will help his students grow as debaters.

“It’s not the same experience that they would have competing against urban debate league students,” Hill said. “It’s a different experience and I want them to have that.”

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