Debate programs at Nichols and other District 65 middle schools have been put on hold for the year, with the district reporting that the debate league has disbanded. But coaches from other school districts have launched a new debate platform and invited District 65 to participate. Credit: District 65

There is a new Midwest Middle School Debate League that could include Evanston/Skokie District 65 if the school district chose to opt in.

But instead, the district said this week it prefers to pause its debate program this year in order to develop an in-house program to launch in fall of 2023.

“Planning is currently underway to establish a robust debate program for our middle schoolers and programming will begin next school year,” Executive Director of Communications Melissa Messinger told the RoundTable in an email this week. 

The new league is also moving ahead and hosted its first tournament in October at Sacred Heart Schools in Chicago, with more than 100 students participating. The next competition will be online only and is scheduled for this coming Saturday, Dec. 10; another tournament is on the docket for Jan. 21.

The issues with the debate league for area schools began this past spring when the lead director of the original group – Illinois Middle School Debate League – walked away from the program. A letter written by five debate coaches from that league and shared with the RoundTable stated that the league director “elected not to continue offering his services,” after last spring.

Last month, the RoundTable published an article about the district putting its middle school debate program on pause for this school year because, the district said, the league it used to participate in had disbanded. But since, the RoundTable found that a new league had been started.

The five coaches who wrote the letter decided to form a “Coaches’ Council” and launched a new debate platform, called the Midwest Middle School Debate League. The intention was that this group serve the same schools that had been part of the old platform, including District 65 middle schools, which had participated in the Illinois group for seven years.

Middle school debate often leads participants to the ETHS debate team, members of which are seen here in 2021.

“After much discussion between the coaches, they elected to continue the league by running it themselves,” the five coaches said in their letter. “The IMSDL was renamed the MMSDL (Midwest Middle School Debate League) and continued on with organized debate tournaments with a full slate of offerings for the school year.”

They also told the RoundTable they had reached out to District 65 but never heard back.

In October, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Stacy Beardsley emailed a parent of a Nichols Middle School debate student saying the district supports debate, but “we do not have a feasible league option for debating this year.”

One longtime debate coach involved in both the old and new leagues, who requested anonymity due to his position as a District 65 employee, said he thought the district may have not have understood this is a new league and a new day. The director who walked away from the old league had caused tensions with schools.

“[District 65] may be just associating the current debate programming for the 2023 season with the faculty, staff members of the old debate program,” he said. “I think, honestly, that this may be a case of mistaken identity.” 

History of challenges

Passions run high in debate. But that is not surprising.

Just over two years ago, middle school debate went through a different controversy when the district waited until late October to fund the debate program for the 2020-2021 year.

Prior to that decision, district officials were unsure if they could sponsor online debate when all other activities were suspended because of the pandemic, according to the RoundTable’s reporting at the time.

Thanks to the last-minute support that the district threw behind virtual debate during the online pandemic year, though, volunteer parent coaches like Michal Yariv were able to prepare students for tournaments over Zoom meetings. The theme for league competitions that year was criminal justice reform.

Still, there is no debate about the program’s role in some middle schoolers and how it helps them find a voice at a pivotal time in their lives.

Yariv, who as a student competed in debate in middle school and high school, helped lead her son’s Nichols team.

“I can’t think of an activity that had more of an impact on my life and career than debate. I can’t think of something that could be leveraged any better than making debate available for all students across all demographics,” Yariv said. “Debate is something that everybody can do and would help everybody. Being able to public speak, have critical reasoning skills, are incredibly valuable in seeing long-term successes of these kids.”

Creating a long-term, in-house debate program with investments in a sustainable future would be ideal, according to Yariv, but she said she doesn’t understand why that effort would have to come at the expense of debate participation this year. 

Speaking to the RoundTable this week, Yariv said she recently texted with some of her high school debate teammates. They were reminiscing about competing in the same leagues as Ketanji Brown Jackson, who recently became a U.S. Supreme Court justice. 

Similarly, Nichols parent Noah Sheldon, whose child joined the school’s debate team last year, said he recently went to a work conference in Chicago where debate came up in conversation.

“I mentioned that my kid was loving debate, and they were like ‘Oh, that changed my life.’ I met [Chicago Mayor] Lori Lightfoot there, and all these people,” Sheldon said. “And there’s no question that in that room alone, people would fund this program in two seconds flat.”

Short-term solution

The five coaches organizing the league said they understand the district’s decision but would also like to extend individual invitations to all interested District 65 students who would like to participate in upcoming competitions, unaffiliated with District 65 schools.

Christian Kline, debate coach for Old St. Mary’s Catholic School, said he hoped District 65 would reconsider its position and join the league for the current school year to give Evanston kids the opportunity to compete.


Below is the full text of the letter that the Coaches’ Council shared with the RoundTable. Any students or parents interested in reaching out can email any of the coaches.

At the end of the last season, our former league director elected not to continue offering his services. After much discussion between the coaches, they elected to continue the league by running it themselves. The IMSDL was renamed the MMSDL (Midwest Middle School Debate League) and continued on with organized debate tournaments with a full slate of offerings for the school year. After more than seven years working together, D65 was offered to continue on with our league through some of the previous D65 debate coaches, but we did not hear back from them. 

The MMSDL hosted our first tournament in October at Sacred Heart Schools in Chicago. Over 100 students participated and dozens of family members lined the hallways and classrooms supporting debaters. Our next tournament will be held online on December 10th. All of our tournaments are listed on Tabroom.com, the website for national tournaments, and our website is msdebate.weebly.com 

For the upcoming two tournaments on Dec. 10 and Jan. 21, as District 65 considers its next steps, the MMSDL is offering tournament registration to independent or unaffiliated teams from District 65 schools that reach out. The MMSDL is also open to having District 65 schools more formally join in at our future tournaments.

As the league examines the previous District. 65 financial arrangements from the last six years, it is certain that the per-school fee moving forward will be substantially less than in years past. This will promote a more equitable and accessible program for all District 65 families and schools.

Sincerely,

The MMSDL Coaches’ Council:
Eric Youngquist – The Avery Coonley School, eyoungquist@averycoonley.org 
Drew Shilhanek – Quest Academy, andrew.shilhanek@questacademy.org 
Jonathan Stopyra – Sacred Heart Schools, jj.stopyra@shschicago.org 
Lane J. Lubell – Frances Xavier Warde School, lubelll@fxw.org 
Christian Kline – Old St. Mary’s Catholic School, christianlk@hotmail.com 

Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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  1. D65 has become a district of lazy admins who have no desire to ever go the extra mile for Evanston children. Sad and pathetic.