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May 6, 2021

Guest Column | Greenfield’s Speech and Debate Program Deserves to be Treated Fairly

By Gary Cohn, Former Adviser, Greenfield High School Speech and Debate Team

On Dec. 18, 2020, the Competitive Speech and Debate Program at Greenfield High School was canceled. By eliminating this program, the South Monterey County Joint Union High School District Board of Education is depriving students of critical college scholarship opportunities. Perhaps more disturbing are the racial overtones, as most of our team members are Latino.

The Speech and Debate Team at Greenfield High School has been the only competitive team activity that still exists in our Covid world. The program was capped in September at 50 students, making it significantly larger than any other program in the school (even pre-Covid).

Our students practice two hours after school everyday and tournaments are 12 hours on Saturday (speech) and 12 hours on Sunday (debate).

Our first tournament is in September and our last tournament is at the end of May. Our kids participate in this 10-month-a-year activity, voluntarily. It is the only team of its kind in the history of Monterey County. Our team has become very competitive and individual team members have excelled.

Last year freshman Melissa Jaime became the first Greenfield student to ever win a medal. This year junior Alina Ramirez became our first student to qualify for a Varsity Event finals, and our first student to reach the level of Excellence in the National Honor Society, and freshman Alex Paniagua became the first student at our school to win an individual event, the Novice Division of Original Oratory at the Los Altos Invitational.

These students should serve as an inspiration to others that, yes, we too can compete with the best that California State Academics have to offer, and come away victorious.

We currently have many students who have been working hard for multiple years to amass career National Honor Society points, and are on track to qualify for NSDA college scholarships. This year, for the first time, we had students qualify for CFL Varsity League Finals, and for State and National Qualifiers.

Students have been working hard to perfect their events, and now they will not be allowed to compete. There has been resistance to this program from its inception. The contract between the California Teachers Association and our District had a clause in it prohibiting any teacher who participated in this program from being paid as a coach.

I was told by my principal and my union president that if I brought this competitive speech and debate program into GHS it would be with the understanding that there could be no pay and no coaching help.

Why is this clause only in predominately Latino schools? Why was this clause placed in the union contract a decade before the activity ever appeared in Monterey County? Why is this program singled out when no other activity has these restrictions?

Why is this activity embraced and supported by both the teacher’s union and the districts in the big, predominately Caucasian schools in San Jose? Why does the CTA support equity and social justice in their publications, and then fight against equal opportunity for our teachers and Latino students?

Despite numerous requests, the California Teachers Association has repeatedly refused to represent the teachers who wish to become involved in this program. The union contract states: “If a new job classification is established, the District will negotiate with the Association over the appropriate salary for that classification. If possible, said negotiations shall take place prior to the filing of the position.”

Three years have passed and the CTA and District have refused to honor this clause in the contract and have never met to discuss the appropriate positions and stipends for this new activity.

When the Board approved the activity, they knew they were approving a full-year activity, one that would necessitate the addition of an annual coaching stipend. Last year they agreed to a new contract with no provisions for any coaches for this activity. Both the District and the Teachers Association were in full agreement that Competitive Academics needed to be completely written out of the contract.

Our kids can be working in the fields one weekend and arguing the merits of Black Lives Matter or the China Belt Road Initiative the next weekend. I frequently see them surprise themselves, and inspire each other.

We have gold in our classrooms, future doctors, business executives, congressmen and maybe a Supreme Court Justice. Our kids are only asking to be given a chance, to be given the same opportunities to succeed in life as other high school students receive.

This program can change the culture of our school away from one based solely around athletics and agriculture programs, to one that can also include a competitive academic culture. The School Board has the power to make that happen.

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