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Fledgling debate team looking to grow
Debate coach LeeAnn Gilroy and Solon High School senior Jesse Miller discuss the young debate program and Miller’s accomplishments at a March 11 school board meeting. Miller qualified for national competitions each of the last two years. (photo by Doug Lindner)

SOLON– “We’re the Solon speech and debate program,” Jesse Miller announced.
Miller and teacher/coach LeeAnn Gilroy stood in front of the Solon school board members at a March 11 meeting.
“We used to be the program,” the Solon senior clarified. “It’s grown. I guess you could say it’s doubled over the course of a year.”
The two were there to spotlight the young debate program as part of a regular agenda slot for celebrating achievements.
Miller qualified for the National Speech and Debate Association National Championships each of the last two years.
“It’s a really big achievement,” Gilroy said. Most people in the novice year of debate are lucky to win a round, she said. Miller took third place in the state as a team of one.
“It’s been a pleasure and an honor to have been his coach,” Gilroy added.
In the fall of 2017, Miller debated in the traditional Lincoln Douglas style, winning at the Johnston Dragon Invitational. He scored top speaker points for all Lincoln Douglas debaters at a spring event and qualified for nationals at the Eastern Iowa State tournament.
In Lincoln Douglas style, two debaters argue support and opposition for a stated resolution; “Resolved: The U.S. ought not give military aide to authoritarian governments,” for example. Opponents must research and debate both sides of the topic, which changes monthly.
This school year, Miller took on Student Congress, a different debate style where participants assume the roles of representatives and senators writing and passing legislation.
Miller ranked in the top one-third of speakers as rated by judge points and was selected at the Iowa High School Speech Association Contest to participate in the Honor Chamber.
He again qualified to go to the national championships.
“Debate is really tough stuff,” Gilroy observed, pointing out it mixes philosophy with current events and requires serious research to defend a position.
“I think debate is critical thinking at its best and when practiced can build an introspective life, a thoughtful life, a life where people could respect others’ views because they understand different philosophies and ways of thinking,” she said in an email subsequent to the meeting.
Although a team of public forum debaters went to one contest in the 2000s, Gilroy said Solon High School didn’t have an official debate team prior to the 2017-18 school year.
Gilroy, speech coach for nine years, has typically taken students to Iowa High School Speech Association (IHSSA) Contests for individual and large group speech.
“The festival atmosphere of these contests encourages improvement and growth, not so much competition,” she explained in an email. “Kids can develop speaking and acting skills more fully by participation in any public speaking event.”
The IHSSA offers categories like public address, after dinner speaking, individual improvisation and ensemble acting, she said.
But after hosting Miller in daily seminar and listening to him talk with classmates, Gilroy suggested he consider debate.
During his sophomore year, Gilroy and Jesse’s mother Denise began seriously investigating training, eventually attending free Iowa Debate Initiative sessions hosted by West Des Moines Valley. They continued streaming the sessions remotely, and the program was up and running.
But while the training was free and the district provided transportation, there is a cost associated with having debate, Gilroy told school board members.
Membership in the National Speech and Debate Association cost $300, and each tournament has an entry fees which can range from $45 to $235 per entrant, she said.
The debate team hosted a concession night raising $200, but if the program grows, it will run out of money quickly, she observed.
Many schools organize summer camps for middle-schoolers to raise funds, and Gilroy said Solon would look to partner with Cedar Rapids Kennedy’s well-known debate coach to start something for local seventh and eighth graders.
Studies show kids in debate programs are much better prepared for post-secondary education, Gilroy said. They are better communicators, better speakers and develop confidence, curiosity, critical thinking and creativity.
A 2000 study found students who participated in forensics developed stronger “expression, risk-taking, creativity-imagination, and cooperative learning,” integral in the development of critical thinking, she reported to the board.
“The single most important thing is to be able to understand someone else’s point of view,” Gilroy said.
Miller was accepted for the honors program at the University of Iowa.
He told board members he wasn’t sure if he would continue debating in college, “But I’d like to.”
Board member Rick Jedlicka said the district was proud of Miller’s achievement.
“Not only of your success, but your willingness to take this on and be the first to do something like this,” he said.
Filling Miller’s shoes will be sophomore Caroline Galindo, who undertook a Lincoln Douglas debate this year and will try Student Congress next year.
School board member Dan Coons asked Miller how best to promote the program.
Miller, who works at the district’s before-and-after-school program, said the children in his care knew he debated and would often ask how he did.
“I don’t think it’s really an issue of kids not being interested, because I think the interest is there,” he told Coons. “Kids are asking about it. Kids want to know about it.”
As middle school kids are introduced to debate during summer camp, they will have the opportunity to pursue it.
“I wanted to have this outlet but there wasn’t a way to do it,” he said. “Now there is.”