EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was originally published in 2014. However, right now, a number of educators, parents and students in Greenville County are working to raise awareness of — and support for — the benefits speech and debate programs provide to students. Currently, there are active speech programs at Eastside, Greenville Tech Charter, Hillcrest, Riverside and Southside high schools in Greenville County. We are not aware of any active programs in Anderson, Spartanburg or Pickens counties. 

Chantel Brown is no stranger to hard work.

Brown, who is a senior at Riverside High School, plans to attend North Greenville University in the fall. She studies hard and spends countless hours practicing with the Riverside High School Speech and Debate Team.

She also works as many as 30 hours a week at Publix to pay her own way to speech and debate tournaments. And in her not-so-spare time, Brown bakes cookies, which she sells to raise money for the team’s travel expenses.

Brown qualified in the dramatic interpretation category for the 2014 National Speech & Debate Tournament June 15 – 20, 2014, in Overland Park, Kansas.

She is one of 24 South Carolina students who made the cut. Of those, 23 are from Greenville County, and one is from Anderson County. The event, which is held by the National Speech & Debate Association, is the pinnacle of high school speech and debate activities for 13,000 students nationwide. Here, qualifiers compete for more than $200,000 in college scholarships in a variety of speech, debate and performance events.

But the hard work of qualifying for the national tournament is only part of the equation. As they practice and prepare, students are struggling to find ways to pay the cost of attending the event.

The road to nationals begins long before tournament day. David Dejesa, coach of Riverside High School’s team, said he will take 14 students this year, far more than expected.

“Our program usually starts in the summer,” he said. “We look at the national tournament as the beginning of our next season. While we are at the tournament, we are learning from other competitors — what works and what doesn’t — and we take those ideas back.”

The routine is similar at most schools. In late summer, team members come together for summer practice. The first novice tournament is in September and the first varsity tournament is in October.

Competitors hit the ground running and don’t stop until summer break. Students compete in debate, congressional debate and interpretive events including humorous or dramatic interpretation, duo interpretation and original oratory.

“A lot of school activities have a season,” Greg Cook, the speech coach at Riverside High School, said. “Here, it goes all year. It’s a long process, particularly when you add up local and travel tournaments. Most of speech and debate is practicing, not tournaments.”

Students qualify for nationals at the National Speech & Debate Association’s South Carolina District Tournament. Gail Nicholas is the South Carolina District chair. Along with her husband, Chuck, she coaches the program at Bob Jones Academy. She will take one student to the national tournament.

“The motivation part is huge,” she said. “You can’t suddenly walk into the district tournament and expect to go to nationals. I tell my kids, you can’t dabble. You have to want to win. We don’t stress winning as the only thing, but that drive to want to go to nationals is huge.”

Throughout the year, students and parents shoulder many of the costs of tournament expenses. While teams raise funds to cover some costs, the remaining expenses to cover entrance fees, travel, hotels and food can add up quickly. Most teenagers also need a new wardrobe for competitions, where T-shirts and jeans are swapped for suits, ties and skirts.

Hard work and passion

Brown said she joined Riverside’s team to meet people.

“Speech and debate is very time consuming,” she said. “It’s worth a lot, so you have to invest a lot in it. It’s not very cheap. You can see what you’re putting into it. You are putting your money toward something that will mean something after high school.”

Brown works hard — usually 20 – 30 hours per week as a cashier at Publix — to pay her own way to competitions.

“It makes me appreciate it a lot more, that I can do it myself,” she said. “I see where my money is going. There’s times when I cry about it. It’s hard. I am working all these hours. I have to work to do speech and debate. That’s really the only reason I have a job.”

At Southside High School, coach Erickson Bynum will take eight team members to this year’s national tournament, including Branden Lindsay, a senior who is ranked No. 1 in the country in dramatic interpretation and duo interpretation. Lindsay will compete at nationals in the duo interpretation category.

“We’re the only group in the building that competes two or three times a month every month for the entire school year,” Bynum said. “They really put in some time. It’s a full-time job. Some of them still hold part-time jobs so they can pay to go to these tournaments. I have students taking four or five AP (Advanced Placement) classes. I have IB (International Baccalaureate) students.”

A life-changing activity

Cook is passionate about his team, and speech in debate in general. He was a national qualifier in dramatic interpretation for Hillcrest High School in 1994. It’s a passion Bynum shares as well. Speech and debate, he said, changed his life.

“Speech and debate gives the kids exactly what it gave me,” Bynum said. “I grew up in this. I was that quiet, shy person. It gave me a voice.”

At first, all the competitors want is a trophy, Bynum said.

“Once I realized this meant much more than the trophy that will tarnish or get thrown out, it changed me,” he said. “It opens up personalities. The first time I won first place at a tournament, my coach said, ‘You see how loud the quiet one has become.’ I had to learn those lessons. I had to do the work. It prepared me for college. I love it and I love to see what it does with the young people. It warms my heart to see that they don’t necessarily want to win. They want to do well.”

Bynum recalled a student several years ago who, as a high school freshman, was having problems in school. Bynum got the student involved in the team.

“He became a fantastic performer, but he became an outstanding leader,” he said. “It wasn’t the trophy he was supposed to get. He found himself as a young man.”

Today, Bynum said, the student is doing well in college.

Lindsay, who plans to attend Morehouse College this fall to study business and theater, said he has learned about himself through the program. With no theater experience, Lindsay made it through two callbacks in auditions for The Julliard School in New York. He often practices and studies film for several hours after his teammates leave the school.

“It’s challenging, but it’s beneficial,” he said. “I know it’s my passion. Sometimes I’m crying because I’m frustrated and I get mad at myself. I’ve pushed myself to levels I never have before. When I entered high school, I was more focused on myself. Speech and debate has caused me to think about the people around me.”

Lindsay serves as a team captain, and encourages his teammates to grow and work hard.

“Sometimes the tools we learn in our craft aren’t just for us, they are for the people coming up around us,” he said.

Lindsay isn’t shy about the practical side of speech and debate. He laments the constant need for fundraising.

“We don’t have a lot of funding from the district,” he said. “Most of the fundraising comes from the students. Raising money is difficult. We can’t do it all.”

At Southside, Bynum said students have raised money through hosting a tournament, staging a talent showcase, and through performing at churches, community events and more.

“We’ve done everything from car washes to monitoring parking lots,” he said. “We’ve done Greenville Drive games, candy sales, barbecues.”

At Riverside, fundraising begins with coupon book sales even before the school year starts. The team sells fruit, puts on a radio play and a talent showcase, hosts spirit nights at local restaurants, and holds bake sales.

Normally, Dejesa said the team can count on taking up to six students to nationals, and the team raises funds and budgets accordingly. Many times, the tournament is within driving distance. This year, however, a flight is required and the team is taking 14 students, plus coaches and judges.

“We think it will cost $15,000 – $19,000,” Dejesa said.

But students are dedicated to finding a way for themselves — and their team, Cook said. He points to Brown’s cookie sales as evidence of the dedication speech and debate inspires.

“She personally pays her way,” he said. “Her cookie baking is not for her. That’s to reduce the cost for other people. It demonstrates how important the activity is to her.”

Cook said students aren’t looking for a way of out payment, just some help.

“It’s important for them to raise money,” he said. “But every minute they spend raising money is time they aren’t spending practicing and preparing.”

For Brown, whose trip to nationals will be her first flight, extra time in the kitchen is a small sacrifice for something she values so highly.

“My team needs help,” she said. “I can’t do a lot, but I can sell cookies and baked goods.”

What is speech and debate?

High school speech and debate is an academic activity consisting of organized competition in areas of public speaking, reading, interpretation, acting and debate. Some students, for example, may debate an issue, while others will interpret a play or piece of poetry. The National Speech & Debate Association hosts the largest academic competition in the world. Qualifiers to the national tournament compete in one of 12 main events — Policy Debate, Public Forum Debate, Lincoln Douglas Debate, Original Oratory, United States Extemporaneous Speaking, International Extemporaneous Speaking, Humorous Interpretation, Dramatic Interpretation, Duo Interpretation, Program Oral Interpretation and Informative Speaking. The tournament includes competitors from all 50 states and several foreign countries.

Share your thoughts

Has a speech and debate program impacted you or your child? If so, send an email to Danna Rohleder, a member of the School Board of Greenville County. Email her at

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