It has been done with boy bands and girl groups. A promoter takes kids with rough skills and turns them into a talented performance group.
But can a high school teacher do the same with a debate team?
Brett Rydalch, a social studies teacher at Grantsville High School, recruited six students four years ago to start the school’s first debate team. Neither Rydalch nor the students had any formal debate experience.
Over the last four years, the GHS debate team has grown to 30 students, and it has collected more than a few of trophies and awards for the school and for individuals along the way, according to Rydalch.
The inaugural GHS debate team grew quickly during the 2014-15 school year, from six members to 22 — two juniors, two sophomores and 18 freshmen.
There were plenty of wet eyes Tuesday night as the debate team met in the GHS cafeteria for an awards banquet. For the nine seniors who have been with the debate team for four years, and for Rydalch, this was their last banquet. Both the seniors and Rydalch are moving on at the end of the school year.
The seniors are graduating and Rydalch is stepping down as GHS debate coach for personal and professional reasons.
“It’s just time to move on,” Rydalch said. “The district has posted the job announcement for a debate coach. A new coach will be selected to carry on the legacy that these students started.”
The team started 2014 with a humbling experience.
After weeks of recruiting team members and practicing debate on the topic of organ donations, the novice debaters were ready to participate in their first debate at Cyprus High School.
But when they showed up at the contest they discovered they had prepared for the wrong topic. The topic of the debate was civil disobedience. But they didn’t go home. The team huddled together in the hallway. Quickly, they exchanged ideas on the correct topic and participated in the debate.
“They did come home with some first-place trophies from that first tournament,” Rydalch said.
During their four years the GHS debate team has made eight total national appearances, and has recognized five of its members as Academic All Americans.
The debate team has been 3A state champions four times. It has been rated as the fifth strongest team in the Salt Lake District with three of its members ranked in the list of the top 10 debaters in Utah.
Tuesday night, the GHS debate team recognized two of its members who were honored as students of the year for the Great Salt Lake High School Debate District.
Members of the GHS debate team have appeared in debates in seven states.
Academic All American is an award program sponsored by the National Speech and Debate Association. The purpose of the award is to recognize the top performers in the country, according to Rydalch.
To receive the award, debaters must score a 28 or higher on the ACT test, have a cumulative grade-point average of at least 3.8, and participated in debate for five consecutive semesters.
Rydalch said he believes the debate team’s five Academic All Americans are the first in the history of GHS. They are: David Christensen, Lara Grow, Landon Kelley, Cas Mulford and Carter Parks.
Christensen, Grow, Kelley and Parks are seniors. Mulford is a junior.
Four years ago in an interview with the Transcript Bulletin, nervous but talkative freshman debater David Christensen said debate had helped him.
“I know more about current events.” he said. “I’m smarter, more outgoing and less shy.”
A more confident and relaxed Christensen sat Tuesday night in the GHS cafeteria and described one of his peak experiences as a debater.
“I went to a national competition in Birmingham, Alabama, with Cas and Gavin,” he said. “We stayed in Birmingham and one night we saw the town. It was a thrill to be in place I had never been before debating with my friends.”
Debate has taught Christensen to be a critical thinker.
“When you debate, you are assigned what side of the topic you are going to debate,” he said. “Sometimes you may end up on the opposite said of the issue from your personal opinion. It makes you look at both sides of issues.”
GHS senior debater Preston Knutson has participated in national debate competitions for four years. He is one of two Utah high school debaters selected to be part of 50 high school students to participate in a national tournament this summer.
“Debate taught me to think extraordinarily both in and out of rounds,” Knutson said. “It has also taught what it is means to be in an American democracy.”
Catherine Newman, another senior who started with the debate team as a freshman, looked back on her four years of debate.
“Debate changed my life,” she said. “As a freshman, I was super shy with no friends. I can now speak my mind and I have tons of friends. I will carry the impact debate has had on my life into the real world.”
Memories of debate shared on Tuesday night not only included stories of lost and won debate rounds, friendships and personal growth. Cheez-Its, dunce caps, cheap vending machines, buses with flat tires, gummy worms, a lack of sleep, goldfish, and granola bars, all seem to figure into the memories of GHS debaters.
While the debaters were quick to credit Rydalch with their growth, both personally and as debaters, Rydalch put the credit right back on the students.
“I love these kids,” he said. “They give me credit for a lot of what they have done, but they are the hard workers. Thank you for letting me be part of your life.”
Although Rydalch and nine seniors are leaving the team, the GHS debate team’s circle of life will keep turning with 14 freshmen who joined the team this year.
Freshman Megan Mollard’s comments sounded a lot like the freshmen that joined the debate team four years ago.
“I have become friends with people that normally I wouldn’t be friends with,” she said. “It has made me so much more confident, and it has made me a better person. Overall, debate this year has made my life so much better and I am so happy I have this opportunity.”
Rydalch said he wants a picture of the debate team displayed on GHS’s wall of champions.
“The team has built a legacy over the last four years,” he said. “One that will influence the lives of these kids forever. And hope it influenced the school.”