VANCOUVER—In the large lecture halls at the University of British Columbia, a palpable buzz hangs in the air as teams of high school students in dapper suits hash out their strategies.
Fifteen-year-old Grace Hodges is one of the hundreds of students from across the Lower Mainland who have been taking part in this tournament hosted by the UBC Debate Society.
But, as the semifinals are set to begin, Hodges, now clad in her red New Westminster Secondary School hoodie, is getting ready to call it a day. Despite winning in Round 3 with a passionate argument on the use of traditional gender roles as an election tactic by female politicians, she’s been ousted.
Though disappointed, Hodges is thankful to have been here.
In the past, she says, organizers at UBC have forgotten to invite her school’s team, leaving them “scrambling” at the last minute just to attend.
There are challenges to participating in debate as a public school student in the Lower Mainland, a circuit that is often dominated by a roster of prestigious private schools.
“Because we’re in a public school, it’s really difficult to get started with debating, because it’s not really a focus (of the curriculum),” said Hodges, who’s in Grade 10.
High school debating has become a measuring stick for students eager to get into Ivy League colleges in the United States. Debating prowess is seen as a show of intelligence and poise, hinting at the kind of traits associated with future leaders.
The fierce ensuing competition has manifested itself in Vancouver, a city with a stark divide between the monied and the middle class.
Families can now shell out as much as $30,000 a year for debate coaching services from a few academies that have emerged to meet the “exponential” growth in demand. It’s a demand driven in part by the recent wave of immigrant families from China, providers say.
In B.C.’s public school system, debating clubs are often student run, with the supervision of a teacher. The clubs can run on modest budgets. Hodges credits the senior students in her school for fostering its strong debate culture.
Aidan Wilson, president of the UBC Debate Society, which hosted the recent event, said they encourage all schools to reach out even if they do not receive an invitation. The tournaments are “inclusive” and they are glad to host any school that wants to participate, Wilson said in a statement.
In this particular fall tournament, Crofton House School and St. George’s School students go on to win in the novice, junior and senior categories.
Most of the winners received training at Fostering Debate Talent Academy founded by Frankie Cena.
Cena was a coach who was working for Crofton House School, a private school for girls in Kerrisdale, when he started noticing a growing demand for extra debate coaching.
Two years ago, he founded the academy, which enrolls students from Kindergarten to Grade 12.
Since then, it has grown from 50 to 300 students, with each paying $100 per two-hour class. For families, the lessons can amount to $3,000 to $30,000 a year, depending on the particular coaches they want to work with. The curriculum, Cena explains, is based on the needs of the students after assessing their abilities, their confidence level and their speech.
“The elite service is what sets the academy apart,” said Cena, who says his main clients are students from Crofton House and St. George’s School, a private university prep school for boys.
A typical class at the academy starts with a 30-minute warmup activity that might consist of speaking out loud to boost students’ confidence or listening to a lecture on a current event. Then the students are divided into teams of two for simulated debates against each other, followed by feedback from the coach.
“I only interact with 10 to 20 students directly, so those families have my number, and they can call me and ask for advice,” Cena added.
Immigrants from mainland China make up 95 per cent of the clientele at Vancouver Debate Academy, which opened in 2016, around the same time as Fostering Debate Talent.
“This recent wave (of immigrants from China) really understands the challenge their kids face in terms of integration … and preparing for university. They’re beginning to understand that to work in North America … they need (strong English skills) in order to be competitive,” said Michael Mityok, owner of Vancouver Debate Academy.
“The marks that they’re getting in their academic courses are not enough. What I’m getting at is the Ivys and the big schools are not necessarily that interested anymore in a 95 per cent grade point average.”
Mityok said their prices are relatively more affordable at $30 to $40 an hour, amounting to $1,100 per three-month term.
Students from wealthier families have an unquestionable advantage in the debate circuit where they often have to shoulder expenses for travel to regional and international competitions, said Mityok.
For 15-year-old Jena Yue, seeking extra coaching at Fostering Debate Talent means getting more opportunities to attend international tournaments held, for instance, in the U.S. and Thailand that she wouldn’t have otherwise have through her school.
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The debating club at her private university prep school Collingwood School in West Vancouver was student-led and didn’t have the professional coaching to help her develop confidence speaking in front of crowds.
“When I was young I was a really shy person, I hated speaking in front of crowds and any type of public speaking,” said Yue, who was born in Canada after her family immigrated from China.
She said it’s during the competitons that she really notices her hours of hard work spent at the academy paying off and giving her an advantage over other students.
“I definitely think that if you spend more time on training, it’ll help you out in tournaments to be stronger,” said Yue, who’s hoping to study international law or public relations after high school.
Despite the different paths of getting to debate for Hodges and Yue, both girls, who each noted being shy growing up, have flourished through their participation.
Tracey-Ann Lee, debate coach at Vancouver’s West Point Grey Academy, which has a strong track record of winning competitions, contends debating should be a required activity in every school.
“The benefits of debate in terms of the speaking skills, the critical thinking skills, in terms of research skills — those are things that every child should have access to. And it’s going to help in not just their education, but also in their future careers,” said Lee who has coached debate for 25 years at West Point Grey.
It’s not a matter of financial resources, but of priorities, she added.
Mityok is grappling with how to make debating more accessible to public school students when he is strapped with limited staff and a school board that doesn’t seem to have an “appetite” for strengthening debate within schools, he said.
The Vancouver School Board said that its teachers and staff enthusiastically support student-led debate clubs.
“Some clubs may also have outside volunteers or coaches, and they can request funding for this from the school. Teachers also structure debates into their regular classroom subjects such as social science and English classes to environmental issues in science,” it said.
The funding comes from the student activity fee students pay every year. The fee ranges from $10 to $35 depending on the school. A portion of the fee is used to support a range of activities, including clubs, according to the school board.
The board also emphasized that B.C.’s new curriculum focuses on three competencies including communication, thinking, personal and social development. These skills are developed in every subject, “and are skills that would be utilized in debates.”
However, the provincial circuit is leaving out swaths of schools in East and South Vancouver and students from low to middle-income families, contends Mityok. The circuit is also not as diverse as it should be as it often lacks Canadian students from the Filipino, Vietnamese, Indian and Black communities, he said.
The provincial debate circuit encompasses any school that enrolls in the pool of competitive high school debate teams in B.C. Similar to other sports leagues, the circuit participates in tournaments and competitions with the goal of competing among the best teams nationally.
Hodges said that from her point of view, public school debaters have advantages, despite any challenges, and often developy a unique style. In her own debating, she said, she draws on the passion she has for issues close to her heart, such as helping to elevate people out of poverty.
“I recognize the privilege that I have being born into a middle class life, with two abled-body parents who are able to provide for me and my sisters. I have a responsibility to help others who might have been born without those same priveleges,” said Hodges, who has her eyes set on studying political science at McGill or the University of Toronto after graduating.
Yet, like a true debater, she can’t help but advocate for a stronger focus on debate in schools.
“Debate should be more integrated in public schools, it teaches a lot of valuable lessons to anybody who tries it.”
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