South Charlotte

There is no debate: This team is top notch

They call it boot camp.

Every day after school - and often on weekends - dozens of students gather for hours-long practices to hone their skills, sharpen their reasoning and dominate when the stopwatch starts.

If you miss practice, you're benched.

You're probably thinking it sounds a lot like a varsity football team.

But this group is bigger than that.

Meet the Ardrey Kell High School speech and debate team, which this year has 102 members.

In less than four years, the team has gone from obscurity to regional supremacy, nabbing the No. 1 spot in the state and the No. 46 spot in the national rankings.

At the helm is teacher Maggie Koller, 37.

When Koller was hired at Ardrey Kell in 2008, then-Principal Mike Matthews told her that along with journalism and English classes, she'd also need to teach a few sections of debate and coach the school's speech and debate team.

At the time, you could hardly call the loosely organized group of 10 students, none of whom had ever been to a tournament, a team.

There's no guide or curriculum, so just see what you can do, Matthews said.

Koller accepted the challenge.

Not knowing where to start, she turned to the long-time renowned debate program at Myers Park High.

Coaches Andrew West and Jason Kline walked Koller through the logistics, gave her the rundown on the National Forensic League and taught her how to manage a team.

They felt that having strong speech and debate teams in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools meant more than a rivalry.

"But they joke that they're done helping me now," said Koller.

The Ardrey Kell team is competing in speech and debate tournaments every weekend in January for a total of 14 tournaments by the end of the year.

The debate team has a trophy case in the school so full that the overflow trophies and medals are displayed in Koller's classroom.

The school won first-place sweeps (the top team award) in the last three tournaments they competed in.

Senior Sowmya Pelluru, a team captain, joined Koller's gang as a freshman, during the team's first year. They only competed in one tournament.

"I went into my first tournament not even knowing something had to be memorized," said Pelluru. "This year, (other teams) walk in and say 'Oh gosh, it's Ardrey Kell.'...We create fear."

But some obstacles along the way came close to shutting the door on Ardrey Kell's budding team.

At the end of her first year at the school, Koller was one of more than 300 CMS teachers to be laid off. The move came in anticipation of cuts in county funding.

Unbeknownst to Koller, her students rushed to her defense. One junior collected 230 student signatures on a petition to keep her.

Koller was rehired that fall.

The following year, however, the school's debate classes were canceled due to budget cuts.

The hybrid classroom/after-school team became purely extracurricular.

And still, it grew. By the end of Koller's first year, there were 34 students on the team. By the end of her second, there were 50.

The class was reinstated last year, and more than 80 students were on the team.

This year, they have eight debate classes (Koller teaches four of them).

The team is split 50-50 between the debaters, fact-driven students who practice in the computer lab, and the theater-type "speechies," who practice in Koller's classroom.

Girls are well-represented on the speech side, while most of the debaters are boys.

In Koller's room, the speechies are a chorus of murmurs. Individuals and groups of two or three are scattered around the room, reciting oratories, acting out duo scenes and practicing storytelling, dramatic interpretation and impromptu speaking.

A mirror rests against a table near the windows, and students stand in front of it to study their facial expressions as they speak.

Occasionally, they'll gather for a performance, which is followed by gentle critiques from team captains.

The computer-lab scene is another story.

The debate students meet there so they can round up research on their topics.

The four main types of debate are: Congressional, Lincoln-Douglas, Policy and Public Forum.

Koller says she loves to walk softly to the door of the lab to eavesdrop on their practices.

"You'd think they're in the middle of a knock-down, drag-out fight," said Koller. "It sounds like Congress."

The topic for the public forum debate at Myers Park last weekend was: The costs of college outweigh the benefits.

When practicing, a team of two argues the pro, while the other argues the con. They throw researched arguments at one another, and each duo gets opportunities for rebuttals and crossfire.

Koller says she often gets compliments from other teachers who are impressed with the unflappable poise her debaters and speechies have when giving presentations, especially with the senior exit project.

"The kids that aren't in debate are so nervous," said Koller. "The debate kids get up and say 'This is easy. I'm not competing. I just have to give a speech.' "

While most schools with large debate teams have more than one coach and a group of assistant coaches, Koller works alone.

The beloved teacher also works as a tutor with Upward Bound, a program at Johnson C. Smith University, where high school students from low-income families prepare to enter post-secondary education.

So the students pick up the slack.

The eight team captains are the core. They lead the practices and pore over the debaters' notes and prepared speeches.

Koller has to work two weekends a month, so if a tournament falls during that time, the students recruit other teachers to chaperone.

Senior captain Shiamak Ratra, 18, says their success is, in part, because the captains are so involved.

"Usually the top people don't do anything for others...whoever was good kept to himself," said Ratra. "We play a bigger role...a coach role."

"The kids are driving it," said Koller.

During last weekend's tournament at Myers Park, Ardrey Kell competed against schools from New York, Kentucky, Alabama and California, including the No. 1-ranked team in the nation: the Bronx High School of Science. (The results weren't yet in as of press time.)

But even more than the victories, this group of students who were looking for a niche, found it, and got a school family, too.

"I don't have kids, so these are my kids," said Koller.

Team captain and speechie Jake McHugh, who has a number of first-place finishes to his name, says the team is the "no-doubt-about-it" defining experience of his high school career.

Says McHugh: "Debate has given me this amazing family of people."