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In Pine Island, re-forming debate team was a winning argument

'You get a lot of life skills," says one member of the small high school team.

Pine Island Debate Team
Michael Jeffrey, the choir director at Pine Island Schools, resurrected the school's debate team after years without one. Jeffrey is photographed at the school Friday, Nov. 18, 2022, in Pine Island.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
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PINE ISLAND — Along with their coach, a small group of students is climbing its way onto a big stage.

This fall, Pine Island Secondary resurrected its debate team after more than a decade of not having one. In doing so, it's become one of the only schools of its size from Southeast Minnesota to compete.

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And now that the first season has wrapped up, they've had a chance to reflect on their first year back.

"I feel like Pine Island's sort of the Lake Wobegon of Minnesota," Debate Coach Michael Jeffrey said. "We have exceptionally smart and motivated students, and (we thought) the idea of being able to argue competitively would appeal to a lot of them."

In debate, students have to argue either in favor of or against bills that are introduced in a congressional setting. The students are then judged and awarded points based on their performances. The Pine Island team competed in five tournaments this season.

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School officials aren't sure how long it's been since the school last had a debate team. Activities Director Lisa Myran-Schutte said it would have been at least 10 to 15 years ago.

"We had a debate in the office today when the last time we had debate was," Myran-Schutte told the school board in June when the district was approving the creation of the team. "It really gives the opportunity to set a basis for our students to be successful at any point they need to talk publicly."

Jeffrey spearheaded the return of the debate team. Since the school already had a speech team, it seemed like a logical jump. When he was in school, the two activities ran together throughout the year.

In Minnesota, however, debate runs in the fall, and speech runs in the spring.

The fact that speech and debate can run hand-in-hand doesn't mean there wasn't a learning curve for the Pine Island team. The students listened to recordings of previous tournaments to get an idea of the process. As a judge, Jeffrey had to learn how to adapt his skills as a speech coach to those needed for debate.

"It's a lot different than judging speech," he said.

Senior Jesse Olson said it would have been nice to have had the option of competing in debate earlier in his high school career, but it was still a good experience. The skills, after all, are preparing the students for life in general, not just their careers.

"It gives you the ability to answer questions with your own thoughts," Olson said.

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With a force of only four students, the school is among the smallest competing in the state. Besides the larger Rochester schools, the only other team in the area is from Kasson-Mantorville, according to the Minnesota State High School League.

"I feel like it was a really good kickoff year," sophomore Nikkole Collins said. "We did a lot better than I think a lot of us were thinking."

In speech, there are tournaments nearby that smaller schools can compete in. For debate, however, the tournaments are focused in the Twin Cities, which requires schools in Greater Minnesota to travel consistently.

Jeffrey said he sees the program growing in the future, and that it will most likely absorb some middle school students as well.

Like Olson, MollyAnn Lechner, a sophomore team member, spoke about how the program goes beyond mere academics.

"You learn a lot, especially professionalism and acting mature," she said. "You get a lot of life skills."

Related Topics: EDUCATIONPINE ISLAND
Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or jshearer@postbulletin.com.
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