CORAL SPRINGS, FL – If standing in front of strangers and debating the merits of old laws scares you, imagine doing that at age nine or 10.
A dozen fourth and fifth graders at Park Springs Elementary in Coral Springs are taking on that challenge as members of the school’s debate team. At a young age, they are learning the skills of lawyers, legislators, and judges by turning facts into strong arguments, listening critically to challengers, and speaking in the right pace and clear tone.
“They’ve learned to use all of this knowledge and put it on a beautifully structured format,” said Stefania Giraldo, a teacher at the school who coaches the debate team.
A debate craze is sweeping local schools.
Debate clubs and tournaments are no longer reserved for middle schools and high schools. They’re now in elementary schools.
Close to 100 elementary schools in Broward County -- totaling nearly 5,000 students -- are participating in debate.
“Some of these (students) are as young as first grade, and we even have pre-k at two of our schools,” said Megan Loden West, civic engagement curriculum supervisor in the department of applied learning at the Broward County schools district, in an email.
She said the district has made offering a comprehensive debate program a priority at all school levels, including elementary schools.
“We are certainly the only place offering multiple competitive opportunities a year. To our knowledge, no other counties in Florida are doing the same thing,” she said.
At Park Springs Elementary, the debate club has been around for two years. The team has won six medals at competitions, including a first-place finish last week in the impromptu category at a tournament.
The group is made up of children from all backgrounds.
“Debate is all-inclusive,” said Katie Policastro, the school’s principal.
Too often, students in elementary schools tend to prefer extra-curricular activities that involve sports or dancing, and debate gives children who aren’t interested in athletics an opportunity to excel at something else, said Bart Sheib, another debate coach at the school.
“This gives them another outlet to compete on levels that are really high,” Sheib said.
Giraldo, a two-year teacher at the school who also mentors 17 other schools in debate, said children, even at such a young age, have the ability to shine at debate.
“They’re like sponges and their brains are so malleable at this point that anything you throw at them, they can conceptualize it and put it right into a speech or writing,” she said.
Many students involved in debate at Park Springs Elementary have shown improvements in writing and reading, the teachers said. National research has found that debate helps youth express themselves, organize their thoughts, and listen better.
For Policastro, that’s all good. She expects her school’s debate club to expand as debate’s popularity continues to grow.