Howard students find success at national debate contests

Two teams take home trophy thanks in part to coaching of Capitol Debate

April 18, 2010|By John-John Williams IV, The Baltimore Sun

Madeleine Houck, a 15-year-old freshman at River Hill High School, had a good feeling going into the Novice National Debate Championship at Woodward Academy in Atlanta.

She spent close to five hours a week preparing for the three-day competition with fellow members of Capitol Debate, a nonprofit based in Ellicott City that coaches students in debate techniques and strategies.

"I was a little nervous, but I knew I put in a lot of hard work," she said.

Houck and her teammate, Michael Koo, an eighth-grader at Ellicott Mills Middle School, went 6-0 in their preliminary debates during the recent contest. Mount Hebron High students Jake Dillon and Andrew Wang went 5-1. After both teams advanced to the championship debate, they agreed to take home the national title as co-champions.

At first, Houck's competitive nature almost won out.

"I was initially against the idea," she said. "I wanted to win. But during the tournament I changed my mind. Now, I'm glad we did it."

Thanks in part to the help of Capitol Debate, the county is becoming a force in national debate competitions.

Students from across the area attend Capitol Debate after school, where professional debaters help them hone their skills. In addition, students may work with their debate coaches at their individual schools.

Houck was also awarded top Novice Speaker at the competition. The accomplishment is even more impressive because Houck only has been competing at the national level for two years. In addition, Srinidhi Muppalla, a student at Centennial High School, was awarded top Junior Varsity speaker at the competition.

It is a rare feat for one school district to win both prestigious awards in the same year, according to Ronald Bratt, CEO and founder of Capitol Debate.

"This is a huge accomplishment," Bratt said. "This shows that Howard County students can compete with the best and brightest students from across the country. This was the creme de la creme."

Houck's family was thrilled to learn of her success.

"I texted my mom. And she was excited," Houck recalled. "She told the rest of my family. They were very excited for me."

The wins are the latest success for Howard County students, who are making their mark on the national debate circuit.

Last year, Nikitia Datta, a rising seventh-grader at Lime Kiln Middle, and Viveka Advani, who had just completed eighth grade at Burleigh Manor Middle, won the Public Forum Debate category of the 2009 Middle School National Debate Championship in San Antonio. The duo beat the reigning national champions from Lanier Middle School in Houston to win the title. They became the first Howard County students to win the competition in its 10-year existence.

In addition to the championship team, Howard County students also excelled in the Policy Debate category. Muppalla, then a student of Burleigh Manor, and Niran Lakhanpal of Clarksville Middle tied for third place with Houck, who then attended Folly Quarter Middle, and Vivian Wang of Burleigh Manor.

Muppalla was named Top Speaker in the nation, which was also a first for Howard County. Wang finished second; Lakhanpal finished fourth; Houck finished fifth.

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