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Okaloosa high school students set to Debate at National Championship in Jacksonville

Students from Fort Walton Beach High School and the Collegiate High School will test their debate skills against competitors from across Florida and South Carolina at a national championship after qualifying […]

Local high school students competing at Incubate Debate’s qualifier competition this past Saturday (Incubate Debate)

Students from Fort Walton Beach High School and the Collegiate High School will test their debate skills against competitors from across Florida and South Carolina at a national championship after qualifying at a regional contest this past weekend.

  • Twelve students from across Northwest Florida punched their tickets to Incubate Debate’s National Championship on April 5-6 in Jacksonville by placing among the top performers this past Saturday at a regional qualifier hosted by Crestview High School. 

The students debated the merits of eliminating Daylight Saving Time, reforming the International Monetary Fund and dropping atomic bombs on Japan during World War II.

Judges included members of the military, college professors and elected officials who evaluated students on their persuasiveness, civility and critical thinking abilities.

“It was a showcase of what it means to care about a topic,” said Madison Rabens, Incubate Debate’s program manager. “I haven’t seen as much passion or heart put into a debate as I did Saturday. These students are not only incredibly intelligent, but incredibly invested in this country and their community.”

The Okaloosa qualifiers who will vie for a share of $15,000 in college scholarships at nationals are: Christian Bailey, William Kiker and Alliyah Knochenmus from Fort Walton Beach High School; and Jonathan Watters, Kaylynn Sirney, Genesis Jimenez-Chavez, Eliora Miller and Nyeli Reyes from Collegiate High School in Niceville.

  • Tristan Martinez, Maverick Marley and Riley Perantoni are from schools in Pensacola, and Larken Hayek is a Gulf Breeze Homeschooler.

They’ll be joining top finishers from Incubate Debate leagues across Florida and South Carolina. While students compete individually at the national tournament, they spend months preparing arguments and rebuttals together leading up to the event.

“They have these huge call sessions where they all call each other and get ready before tournaments, even with the other schools,” said Katrina Brownsberger, a debate teacher at Fort Walton Beach High who also serves as the Okaloosa County and northwest Florida regional director for the Florida Civics and Debate Initiative. “It’s really cool to see the way they do that.”

Brownsberger said her student leaders often lead half of her classes because of their mastery of debate techniques and events. They also mentor middle school debate teams to build the next generation of competitors.

“The student leadership is what’s really impressive about debate in general. But my debate kids especially, I am so incredibly proud of them,” she said.

While many people misunderstand debate as mainly being about confrontation and arguing, Brownsberger said it teaches critical listening and thinking skills too. Students gain confidence speaking in public and learn how to craft persuasive messages, skills that translate to college, career and civic life, she said.

  • Debate teaches “how to sell themselves and sell what they’re trying to get accomplished,” Brownsberger said. “They learn how to network.”

Her top debaters volunteer to judge middle school contests, give speeches to Rotary Clubs and American Legion posts and have won community competitions like the Martin Luther King Jr. oratorical event.

“They’re learning to use their voices for the messages that are important to them,” Brownsberger said.

Congratulations poured in for the victorious debaters who will represent Okaloosa County.

  • “It is awe-inspiring to see the hard work of these students, who demonstrated exemplary speech and debate skills and used civility and aptitude for respectful disagreement,” Marcus Chambers, superintendent of Okaloosa County schools, said in a statement. “I wish them all great success when they compete in Jacksonville in April.”

The county’s top competitors have a full slate of contests ahead to prepare for nationals. Brownsberger said she is hoping to qualify more students this year for the National Speech & Debate Association national tournament held over the summer.

With team officers teaching classes and mentoring younger students, Brownsberger said the activity builds leadership skills that translate far beyond the debate stage.

“Confidence is the easy answer. Public speaking is the number one fear in the world,” she said. “By the end of the year, there’s none of that anymore. Of course there are nerves when public speaking but these kids gain such confidence in themselves, their abilities and the skills that they’ve built up.”

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