The whole Speech and Debate team at the Illinois Communication and Theatre Association Speech Tournament. Photo from ETHS. Submitted photo

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Evanston Township High School’s Speech and Debate team has a long, proud history. Students won the IHSA State Championship in Policy Debate as far back as 1968.  But over the past eight  years under Jeff Hannan, the team has grown in size, scope and success.

Speaking from a debate camp in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. this week, Mr. Hannan,  Director of the Speech and Debate team, told the RoundTable about how targeted recruiting efforts and expanded opportunities for students have led to a bigger, better team.

He said the team has gone from five to 87 members during the last four years.  Some of that growth, he acknowledged, was due to bringing together the speech and policy teams under one umbrella, but in his first year, only five returning members were on the team.

The program consisted of “18 white boys the first year,” said Mr. Hannan. Now, the team includes 34 students of color (up from 23 last year) and 50 female students (up from 47).  Adding diversity was a “big goal and focus.”  Recruiting coaches that reflect that same diversity was key, he said.  The team now has eight assistant coaches, five of whom are college students and three who are ETHS teachers, all with varied backgrounds.

Reaching out to younger students has also helped build the team. Debates were held at several local middle schools, and volunteers visited with interested students to help build awareness of the program at an earlier age.

The structure of the team also contributes to its growing popularity. “We’ve worked really hard to be flexible and meet students’ needs,” said Mr. Hannan.  While most other high school activities have set practice schedules, the speech and debate team works year around, and members can join or take a hiatus at any time. With so many coaches, students can plan practices around their schedules, including time on weekends. Students can play a sport and be on the speech-debate team at the same time, which helps with retention, said Mr. Hannan. Team members also decide how many competitions they want to enter each year. This past year, “our team attended 47 different tournaments, resulting in 1,238 additional days of education for our students.” This is up from 44 tournaments last year and 12 during Mr. Hannan’s first year as Director of the program.

Finding “new and exciting ways for our students to engage with topics” enhances the experience which aids recruitment. This past year, students interviewed the ETHS School Resource Officer and one of the Deans to learn about searches of students on school grounds. Students were researching whether there should be legal punishments for leaking classified information and met with the acting ambassador to Luxemborg – who happens to be Mr. Hannan’s sister — to learn about government standards for confidential and classified information. “Talking to experts about an issue is always better than reading about it.” 

Efforts to grow the team are reaping competitive rewards. “Our students achieve excellence at every level of competition.” During the past school year, 16 students qualified to compete at Nationals. The school boasts top speaker awards at invitational tournaments in four different states, novice state champions in Public Forum Debate, and Varsity state runners-up in Public Forum Debate.

Junior Gabi Senno became ETHS’s first ever National Finalist in a speech event, Original Oratory, at this year’s Tournament of Champions; she is also the first Latina from ETHS to qualify to Nationals. Junior Jasper Davidoff achieved ETHS’s best ever finish in a speech event at the NSDA National Tournament: semifinals (top 10 in the nation) in Extemporaneous Commentary. Juniors Isabelle Bavis and Genevieve Wade became the first all-female team from ETHS to qualify to the Tournament of Champions. 

When Mr. Hannan returns from Fort Lauderdale, he will be preparing for ETHS’s weeklong preseason camp which takes place Aug. 7 to 11. District 65 students are invited to participate in the camp as well, which helps “grow awareness” of the program and “gives us a head start.” In September, the team will compete in three out-of-state events in Kentucky, Iowa, and the Yale Invitational.