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Cuthbertson High's speech and debate: sparks student confidence, brings state and national recognition

Angela Segarra, an English teacher at Cuthbertson High, had a vision to create a Speech and Debate Team at the school. Her idea sparked a keen interest in public speaking and discussion, resulting in reviving an elective class and building an inaugural team.

"There was a speech and debate elective available that no one was teaching, so I asked to do it. I started with about 24 students. Now, I have two classes in the fall and spring," said Segarra. "Four of my peer tutors are part of our competitive team. They loved the class so much that they didn't hesitate to be a part of it. It's been growing from word of mouth."

Kaitlyn Rice, a junior, opted for this elective due to an empty block in her schedule. Although unsure of what to expect, she enjoyed it so much that she became a peer tutor and joined the speech and debate team. 

"It was intimidating at first. The first thing we did was Congress, which was speaking in front of the class with people from different grades. It got easier as I went along," said Kaitlyn. "Currently, we are participating in mock college interviews. This exercise teaches us to think on our feet and examine perspectives we may not have considered before."

Kaitlyn has seen such a growth in her confidence. She said that she performed one of her dramatic interpretations for her parents, and as she finished, her parents sat in awe and silence, their eyes fixed on her with lots of praise. 

The Speech and Debate program helps students discover their voice and express their thoughts confidently. Segarra uses engaging activities to enhance their thinking and argument skills. Collaborating with teammates and receiving feedback equips them with excellent problem-solving skills, contributing to their resilience and readiness to face challenges in school and life. Students are becoming more confident and articulate individuals.

"It prepares you for life. I was very introverted and not very social. "After taking the class and being part of the team, I have become more outgoing," said Brady Howell, a senior. "It has taught me to become a great listener, not just a great speaker."

Brady is a peer tutor and president of the speech and debate team. He has taken what he's learned beyond the classroom. Brady has advocated for more speech and debate courses in the district's curriculum by speaking at past Board of Education meetings. It is something he would not have felt comfortable doing before. The most notable changes he has seen are in his grades, which have significantly improved. 

"All the events require writing, public speaking and research. These skills help students excel in English and all of their classes," said Segarra. "I believe in a familial-style classroom setting because it is freshman to seniors. To speak out loud, you have to be comfortable."

Students may write a persuasive speech or legislation, depending on the speech and debate format, or argue for or against a topic. No matter the style, it requires significant amounts of time and preparation to do it well. The team has been up for the challenge. 

In their debut year, the team secured the Small School Sweeps title at three top-notch tournaments and competed in the National Tournament in Phoenix, Arizona. Now, with more than 40 active members, they've achieved third-place Sweeps twice and have six students qualified for the State Tournament, with two more chances to qualify. They've also secured second-place sweeps once this year. The growth and success speak volumes about the team's journey.

The accolades do not end there. They have earned Cuthbertson High recognition as a chartered member of The National Speech and Debate Association, an honor typically granted to institutions after three to five years of participation. Additionally, on Saturday, Feb. 3, the team hosted the first National Speech and Debate Tournament in Union County. 

Organizing the event exposed the students to invaluable behind-the-scenes insights into event management, logistical coordination and teamwork. The tournament brought together top-notch debaters and speakers from all over the state, providing Cuthbertson students with a unique opportunity to witness and learn from some of the best. The event had 405 attendees, representing 20 schools from across North Carolina. There were a total of 290 competitors and 115 judges in attendance.