To be the best is to have the grit to overcome the most challenging obstacles. That’s exactly what young debaters from Alief ISD are doing with the support of CASE for Kids.
Two Alief ISD teams from Kerr and Elsik high schools emerged triumphant at the 2022 Houston Area Urban Debate League (HUDL) City Championship Tournament earlier this month.
“There’s a camaraderie amongst the kids and the coaches in this district that says that’s a moment of pride for all of us,” said Elsik’s director of speech and debate, Heath Martin, referring to the wins Alief ISD debate teams are yielding.
Elsik crowned in the World Schools Debate event for the third year in a row, while Kerr placed second in that same event. Kerr also took top honors in Cross-Examination Policy Debate. Teams from both schools are now eligible to advance to the National Speech and Debate Tournament in Louisville, Kentucky, in June.
For the Elsik team—Diego Castillo, Ebenezer Appiah, Rubick Hernandez, and Nhung Huynh—success in the World Schools Debate format doesn’t come without a consuming obsession to stand out.
“We drill a lot,” said Castillo, who was also on last year’s winning team. “Once we get to the [city] championship, it’s so easy because it just feels like practice.”
The team’s focus is more acute on the road to nationals.
“For nationals in specific, we kick it into high gear. I’m pretty confident in saying that we are the hardest working team in existence,” jokes Appiah, a senior at Elsik. “We pretty much make debate a lifestyle. Everything we’re doing throughout the day is in relation to debate. We’re reading. We’re constantly watching videos to improve our skills.”
Martin, possibly the team’s biggest cheerleader, emphasizes the team’s momentum.
“These kids are the hardest working group of kids that I’ve ever seen, and they do it literally on their own in many ways. They run their own practice rounds, develop their own drills, and create their own curriculum,” he said. “That happened because of the relationship they built with debate coach Andy Stubbs through CASE for Kids and HUDL. We certainly appreciate the materials and the access to things that we wouldn’t have in this building, quite frankly, without CASE.”
As a Title I district, Alief ISD’s student population is predominantly economically-disadvantaged and diverse. Through CASE Debates, debaters receive free training and access to coaches and tournaments.
“Coming from our community, it’s really easy to be a small fish in a big pond,” said Appiah. “So I think a lot of people [don’t] normally get into competitive debate, or they just don’t think they can get into competitive debate because of the lack of resources we have.”
More importantly, CASE Debates creates scholarship opportunities and offers students the opportunity to build self-esteem, expand their horizons, and meet other like-minded students locally and nationally.
“All of this—the success, all of the hard work we’ve put in—it really revolves around the mindset that kids in my community have, which is ‘we’re going to make it out,’” said Hernandez, the youngest team member.
Through connections, Stubbs positioned the team to garner the attention of hall of fame coaches Cindi and Aaron Timmons and attend camps like the Global Debate Symposium, resulting in big wins over the last few years.
“At the city championship, four Alief teams were in the World Schools Debate event semifinals, so basically, Alief closed out the entire semifinals,” said Appiah. “Even though we were the small fish in the big pond, we could still compete against people who get private coaching, who literally hire and pay people thousands of dollars to teach them something they’ve been studying for years upon years. We’re just average people.”
For Martin, a former high school debater who grew up in a housing project in Louisiana, his students’ achievements are not lost upon him.
“Cindi and Aaron Timmons coach at one of the most elite private schools in the country. Before Cindi took the job as Executive Director at the Dallas Urban Debate Alliance (DUDA), she was coaching third-graders,” Martin said. “So [Alief students] are literally charged with competing against kids that started elite debate training as early as eight and nine years old.”
Yet, the silver lining is visible.
“The kids in Alief—not just at Elsik, but at Hastings, Taylor, Kerr, and Alief Early College high schools—have insurmountable odds because they’ve got to catch up,” Martin acknowledges. “They are afforded that opportunity through the work with CASE, and it’s happening in a very real way. [The students on the Elsik team did] not just catch up – they caught up and passed everybody and left them in the dust. With their success came other schools in our district that said, ‘hey, if they can do it, we can do it too.’”
Appiah and Castillo, the team’s upperclassmen, are weighing their college admissions offers, which include top-tier higher education institutions. Elsik and Kerr high schools’ speech and debate teams will compete at the National Speech and Debate Tournament on June 12-17.