Student dedication leads to Chesterton’s dominance in debate
BY JOHN ROBBINS Post-Tribune correspondent December 30, 2013 11:39PM
Chesterton High School debate coach Chris Lowery works with juniors Nadia Mario, front, and Katherine Bolek prior to their policy debate at a competition on Saturday, December 14, 2013 at La Porte High School. | Michael Gard/For Sun-Times Media
On a recent Saturday, school buses filled with students from around northern Indiana convened on LaPorte High School in the midst of a blizzard.
They came from as far away as West Lafayette, and included a small Mennonite school from Goshen.
But it was not an athletic competition that brought these schools together. A more cerebral activity — debate — was the focus today.
It has been for years at Chesterton, which has dominated statewide competitions for the better part of the last quarter-century.
Munster and Valparaiso high schools also have strong debate programs.
No matter the school, the students who dedicate themselves to debate spend countless hours preparing, both at school and home; it is as much work as higher-profile activities such as football or basketball.
Unlike these events, debate competitions are usually held behind closed doors, with only competitors and judges present.
“It’s not a spectator sport,” said Brenda Leopold, mother of four CHS debaters, though debaters earn letters, just like athletes.
“I don’t see it as a sport, but she sees it as a sport,” said Linda Burke of her daughter Abby, 16, a junior in her third year of debate.
Abby and Senior Zach Bogich, 18, both draw parallels between debate and another brain game — chess.
“Debate as a game is inherently all about strategy,” says Zach. “Instead of using chess pieces, you’re using arguments.”
CHS debate director Chris Lowery draws that parallel.
“It’s like a chess game in predicting what opponents will do,” he said.
Zach has lettered in both debate and golf; Abby in debate and tennis.
“You really have to decide what’s important to keep and which argument to give up,” said Abby.
Lowery, a Chesterton grad, won an individual state title in policy debate as a junior in 1998, when the team took first place. The school was coming off of a fifth-place state finish in 1997. The 1998 title started a string of nine first-place finishes.
Lowery returned to Chesterton after graduating from Indiana University in 2004 to become head debate coach that year. Lowery oversees the debate program and also teaches history.
The Indiana High School Forensic Association established an overall state team debate championship only in 1984. Chesterton tied with West Lafayette High School for first place that year and has since placed first 23 times, including a tie for first place with Munster in 1994 — an achievement unlikely to be matched in the near future.
The Chesterton debate team is one of only four Indiana schools to win the prestigious national Bruno E. Jacob trophy, named after the founder of the National Forensic League, the overall national sanctioning organization for speech and debate. CHS won that prize in 1987, 1994 and 2009 — the only public school to win three times.
Munster won the trophy in 2008 and 1989.
The CHS speech and debate program has about 140 students, with about 90 in debate and the rest in speech, according to Lowery.
“Traditionally speech had greater numbers, but over the last six years debate has become larger,” notes Lowery.
Carol Biel, who retired from teaching, still coaches debate. So do math teacher Shane Smith and new hire Josh Coots, who teaches social studies and English.
There are also four speech coaches: Bob Kelly, “the architect of the program,” according to Lowery, Kirsten Reed, Eric Schaefer and Jessica Cleary.
Student debates “tend to be kids who are willing to look at both sides of an issue and like to argue,” said Lowery.
“Ultra talented,” is how he characterizes those drawn to debate; he added that he is “proud that we take everybody” who is interested in the program.
After school usually finds Lowery with the debate students, going over strategy, listening to arguments and offering advice.
Eric Richardson, 15-year-old sophomore, recently was practicing a four-minute public forum speech. To a first-time listener, Richardson sounds like a radio-advertising announcer reading the contractual fine print — very fast. Debaters have to speak fast because they have a limited time to make their points and impress the judges.
Lowery thinks he may be a little too quick.
“Figure out where to cut,” Lowery tells him.
Earlier that afternoon, Lowery discussed strategy with a group of eight debaters. Students spend a lot of time after school preparing for debates, either in strategy sessions or in the debate lab, which has 30 computers for the team to use to conduct their research.
“I live here,” said senior Kaley Brown, 18. Kaley has been on the debate team since freshman year and went to the national debate competition in Birmingham, Ala. in June.
“I really love it,” she says. “I love learning a lot about the subject area.”