Debate team dominates with immigrant kids and English learners
Which Southern California institution has won five championships in the past two decades and never failed to make the playoffs?
Hint: it’s not the Lakers, Clippers or Dodgers.
I’m talking about the speech and debate program at Gabrielino High School in San Gabriel. For more than two decades, he completely dominated the Southern California speaking and debating scene, qualifying for national championships for 26 consecutive years. Coach Derek Yuill said he can count the number of schools the program has lost to on the one hand.
Five Gabrielino students have won national championships and the team has been named one of the top 20 schools in the country for the past 15 years.
The team counts Johns Hopkins professors, NASA researchers and public advocates among its alumni.
And he’s achieved those results with teams made up largely of Asian and Latino students, many of whom are English learners and immigrants themselves.
When I spoke to assistant coach Eric Chen, the team was returning from Louisville, Ky., fresh from another top 20 finish at the Nationals.
“These kids have an incredible work ethic and that translates into a lot of success,” said Chen, himself a former student of the Gabrielino debate program.
I am also an alumnus of speech and debate in high school, although I participated in a debate on a public forum – an event I was told is for the intellectual lightweights in the speech and debate community .
If you think about it, it makes perfect sense that people who are new to English and this country can make such competent speakers.
The debate checks a lot of boxes for immigrant children, other than looking good on a college application.
First and foremost, it builds on skills we’ve already honed growing up in families that sometimes rely on us to be their voice. If you successfully argued for credit card bills to be consolidated or fielded HR emails for your mom’s job as a teenager, arguing with another high school student is just plain easy.
Such responsibilities are an early education in the power of language and oratory. It teaches you how valuable language proficiency is by showing you how painful things are without it.
Second, it’s an after-school program that doesn’t require expensive fees or equipment to participate — all you need is a costume and a ride.
And thirdly, it is an academic activity for which you can receive real trophies if you do well. What better physical proof that you are making your parents’ American dreams come true than trophies for being a good student?
For many immigrant children, myself included, debate is also what teaches us the value of disagreement.
“Growing up, we’re taught to speak to authority in a certain way, to defer,” said Sean Lo, a 31-year-old alumnus of the program who now works as a public defender in Portland, Oregon. “Debate helps you learn to defend yourself and others.
The Gabrielino debate team is a tight-knit group of about 100 students, said 18-year-old Luccia Yacoub, who served as one of the team captains this year.
Practices often don’t end until sunset, and some students spend several hours a week rehearsing.
“If you are really in-nnn speech and debate? You gravitate towards him all the time and it’s like everything you do,” Yacoub said. “Speaking and debating were what really identified me in high school.”
Yacoub is Egyptian American and her family members are Copts, a small Christian religious minority in the Middle East, and she says her time on the speech and debate team inspired her to be more champions of her culture.
“I feel like my people don’t have the chance or the opportunity to speak out,” Yacoub said. “The debate helped with that.”
Yacoub graduated this year and plans to attend Johns Hopkins University with a double major in premedical and public health. She wants to become a pediatric oncology surgeon who also advocates for access to health care for underserved minorities.
But before all that, she has a more immediate objective.
Johns Hopkins has a debate team, and “I’m pretty sure I’ll be on it,” Yacoub said.