CSUN hosts annual high school debate competition

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CSUN hosted the annual California High School Speech Association’s State Tournament held April 29 to May 1 for the first time in over 30 years, which helped bring awareness about the campus to high school students from throughout the state.

Becky Opsata, communication studies professor and CSUN Forensics director, coordinated the event’s activities on campus by making classrooms and outdoor areas around Manzanita Hall available for more than 1,000 high school students, coaches and parents.

“We (had) 1,000 (of the) most articulate high school students in the state here all weekend, so it’s good for CSUN to have them come to our campus, meet our team and get CSUN on their radar (as) a possible school to go to,” Opsata said.

Opsata said 88 CSUN students in the Communication Studies 400: Oral Performance class, as well as most members of the 30-member CSUN Forensics Team, volunteered as tournament judges.

Rachel Murphy, women’s studies major, press liaison for the Forensics Team and a policy debater, said hosting the state tournament at CSUN provided the chance to tell students about the school and try to recruit them.

“When we have all these high school (students) from all around the state of California here, they get to learn about CSUN,” Murphy said. “We give them pamphlets about the CSUN (Forensics) Team, and it gives them a chance to check out the campus and talk to students.”

After talking to students during the weekend, Murphy met several who said they were planning to apply to CSUN, she said.

Opsata requested funding from the Open Society Institute, and then founded the Los Angeles Urban Debate League to help start high school debate teams. The institute granted her about $150,000 this year.

“We support 17 high schools,” Opsata said. “The Los Angeles Unified School District cancelled almost all their debate teams (due to budget cuts). I got the money from this foundation to try (to) start teams in schools that don’t have them. We work in economically disadvantaged schools, because those are the ones less likely to have teams.”

David Wiltz, program administrator for the Los Angeles Urban Debate League, said his job is to help establish debate teams at underprivileged high schools.

“We’re a non-profit organization funded by the grant,” Wiltz said. “My job is to go around to inner-city schools and set up debate teams if they receive Title I funding or they’re considered an under-served school.”

Almost every member of the CSUN Forensics Team volunteers on weekends by judging high school tournaments, and during the week by coaching at the schools, Opsata said. The students help Title I high schools, such as Long Beach Jordan, Washington Prep, Canoga Park, Birmingham and the Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies.

“Title I means you have low performance on standardized tests,” said Rachel Levitt, senior communication studies major and president of CSUN’s Forensics Team. “It’s a political tool to label schools that are in trouble. Title I schools are the most under-funded. We do a lot of the research for them, produce the evidence, train them on how to debate, discuss what arguments mean, and teach debate skills.”

Over the summer, CSUN students also teach at the Long Beach Forensics Academy, which is similar to other high school debate camps, except that students from a Los Angeles Urban Debate League team do not have to pay to attend.

“It’s great to see that you’re actually helping people further themselves in their lives, because you’re giving them an opportunity they wouldn’t have otherwise,” said Shantae Comliffe, senior psychology and Pan-African studies major, who volunteers at Birmingham High School as a debate coach.

Louis Blackwell, a junior at Long Beach Jordan High School, is a team policy debater who made it to the finals in the state tournament.

“Without them, we couldn’t go to the tournaments or summer camp,” Blackwell said.

Blackwell and his partner won first place in California in the policy debate category.