Speech and debate program undergoes leadership overhaul

November 27, 2018 — by Chelsea Leung and Alexandra Li

After the departure of former speech and debate team head coach Chris Harris last summer, the program, a 501c3 nonprofit organization in which about 100 students participate, is now run by head coach Victor Rivas Umana in an attempt to return it to stability.

Umana coached debate last year and has stepped up as head coach and temporary director of the program. Student leadership, the parent committee and the other coaches also run the club with general oversight from English teacher Erick Rector and the administration.

This year, a new branch of the parent committee, the steering committee, has been established to help with the transition, providing “a platform to address inter-stakeholder and sticky governance issues,” parent committee volunteer and events coordinator Sophia Kao said. The parent committee as a whole is also dealing with transitioning to a better registration system for future competitions.

Additionally, in mid-November, speech coaches Steven Leal and Jennifer Xiong joined speech coach Vidya Ullal, who was hired at the beginning of this year and previously coached some students at Redwood Middle School. Harris, who led the program since 2014, resigned at the beginning of the summer. After Harris’ departure, head debate coach Steve Clemmons and speech coach Mylan Gray also left the program.

Members of the speech and debate team were told by the parent committee that the school board had launched an investigation into the program under Harris’s leadership. The board did not publicly release the results of the investigation, and school board president Robin Mano declined to comment on the situation.

Umana, who teaches at five other schools and at his own debate academy, is currently the only coach for the debate division. The parent committee is still searching for another debate coach.

Leal and Xiong work at Umana’s own Golden State Academy. Leal coaches at Evergreen High, Harker and BASIS Independent; Xiong, who currently attends Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley, also coaches for Evergreen High and Harker and was a competitor at James Logan High from 2009 to 2013.

Before Leal and Xiong were hired, the lack of coaches meant that student leadership, including officers and event captains, needed to step up.

After August student elections, senior David Koh is now president. The vice president of speech is senior Ishan Lakhani, while vice president of debate is junior Adhit Sankaran. Junior Ronak Pai is treasurer and junior Ashwin Ramakrishna is the secretary.

The public forum event is captained by a committee of all participating upperclassmen; senior Reva Vaidya oversees policy. Captains for LD are senior Victor Liu and juniors Chris Feng and Ujjwal Krishnamurthi, while seniors Arian Raje and Ruchi Maheshwari are the leaders of extemporaneous speaking. Juniors Connie Liang and Anishi Patel are captains for individual speaking events.

Liang, whose main event is original oratory, said that many of the upperclassmen took on more responsibilities and stepped into de facto coaching positions.

She and Patel have been helping younger students with their speeches, advising them with their writing and providing tips and tricks that can help them gain a competitive edge. Liang also said that the added time and effort in helping the younger kids has made it difficult for upperclassmen to work on their own speeches.

“It's extremely difficult to make every single practice on time because as students, we have an incredible workload in not only homework but other extracurriculars as well,” Liang said. “During the water polo season sometimes I went into speech practice and my hair was still dripping wet and I was reeking of chlorine because I just got out of water polo practice.”

Despite the challenges, Liang has found that the student-led coaching method has bolstered bonds within the team.

“You start talking to these freshmen that you otherwise wouldn't have the chance to interact with, and it creates a more casual environment where everyone feels comfortable learning,” Liang said.

After the addition of Leal and Xiong in mid-November, Liang has noticed slight changes, including better organization and specialized attention for each student in speech.

According to Liang, Leal plans to strategize by using a top-down approach where the professional coaches teach the student leaders, and then these leaders are able to spread out and help the younger members on speech.

“All the student run leadership is still there, but now we have someone who can coach us student leaders,” Liang said.

Liang said that older students still help with answering questions and guiding the novices, but the responsibilities of teaching how to write and deliver speeches are lessened.

As for debate, LD and policy have been struggling with their method of student coaching, most likely due to the previous lack of attention that the divisions were given, Koh said.

“Right now LD and policy are in a bad situation because the way the club was structured last year made it so the captains this year weren’t exactly prepared to take over a coaching role,” Koh said. “It’s not really the captain's fault; it’s just a lack of organization and ideas on how to coach the new people.”

Koh said he hopes that the situation can improve by hiring someone new or finding different ways to structure practices.

Additionally, some parents have complained about the student coaching, saying that other students’ teaching is not as effective as that of a professional coach.

Following the new school-wide policy of having no mandatory payments and instead turning to donations, the club has also taken on a new donation-based way of registering for tournaments, principal Paul Robinson said. Families can voluntarily contribute funds. Students can still attend if their families do not donate. However, if the program doesn’t receive sufficient funds for all to participate, no one can attend tournaments.

Koh said that the club, though, is currently not struggling financially due to around 90 members’ donating $600 each. This contribution to the club budget has allowed about 15 members to participate in each competition, of which there have been nine so far this year.

Though the club is still undergoing major changes, members are already looking to the future. As a method for fundraising and recruiting, the club wants to create a camp where they would be able to charge tuition for middle schoolers and freshmen interested in speech and debate.

Koh said that despite all the challenges, he sees the rest of the year as an opportunity for the program to grow.

“I’m very happy with how the club has progressed so far and am optimistic that we can adapt to this setback and continue to compete at a national level,” Koh said. “In the future, I hope that the club can establish the leadership framework needed to keep the club going in the years to come.”

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