Debate students get more talk in before winter break

St. Francis High School’s doors were closed for most students and staff in 2013 when regular classes ended Dec. 20, but a few select youth who study domestic and global affairs for the school debate team were back in the halls and rooms that Saturday for more discussion.

The St. Francis student debaters and their advisers, including head coach and high school media specialist Steve Fetzik, welcomed buses of competitors and other coaches for the day from Cannon Falls, Brainerd, Blaine, Champlin Park and Providence Academy (located in Plymouth).

St. Francis High School debate teammates junior Megan Houle (left) and senior Lauren Handzel (right) prepare notes before a round of competition Dec. 21 at the school. Photo by Paul Rignell
St. Francis High School debate teammates junior Megan Houle (left) and senior Lauren Handzel (right) prepare notes before a round of competition Dec. 21 at the school. Photo by Paul Rignell

Participating students spoke and debated topics in five rounds from mid-morning through early afternoon. Coaches from schools served as judges for debates only in rooms where the competing students hailed from other schools.

Shortly after school resumes in the New Year, debaters from all 71 participating schools in Minnesota will head to Blaine High School for section meets Jan. 10 and 11, and the students who perform the best there will visit the University of Minnesota for the season-ending state meet Jan. 17 and 18.

St. Francis debate students begin their research on statewide topics the first week of classes in September, gathering for practice after school Monday through Thursday, and they travel for most of a series of 10 meets that take place on Saturdays throughout the fall.

The program schedule is flexible, allowing students to participate in other activities during the season. “It is a rarity if somebody just does debate on our team,” said Fetzik.

Some St. Francis team members are musicians in the “PM Jazz” program Mondays after school and some participate in Knowledge Bowl in the afternoons Tuesday and Thursday. The daily demands of school sports generally prohibit the debaters from any athletics in the fall and winter, but Fetzik says they have played baseball or run track in the spring.

“They’re highly intelligent, they’re highly motivated and these types of students are just a pleasure to work with,” he said. “I mean, really, who wouldn’t want to work with these types of kids?”

Fetzik has coached debate and taught at St. Francis for 10 years, starting as a language arts instructor, after previously coaching and teaching at Austin High School and also coaching speech at North Dakota State University. He follows the career paths of many Austin and St. Francis alumni, noting that several have become doctors, lawyers, engineers and business leaders. One of his Austin students now has a critical role in a lab at the Mayo Clinic, while another heads a department for Hormel Foods.

Two of St. Francis’ current leaders are sophomore Joe Blom and senior Adam Everhart, who teamed up at a National Forensic League district meet Dec. 14 and qualified for national competition next June in Kansas City.

Regardless of the skills that the students bring to debate season, the activity helps them to keep learning whether they compete solo or with a teammate (depending on their chosen style of debate) on topics which this year have included federal surveillance and immigration reform.

“Debate teaches a lot of different skills,” Fetzik said. “Obviously research skills, writing skills, speaking skills and really listening skills, too, as well as the ability to question.”

Students may enter their season with opinions on a subject, or those feelings may develop through the course of their study, but the debaters must split their rounds on opposite sides. If they present and speak on the benefits of surveillance in one round, they must take the opposing viewpoint against other competitors in the next hour.

“The thing of (high school) debate is that students need to debate both sides of an issue,” Fetzik said. “It allows you to see multiple perspectives.”