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Packer’s Most Professional Club, Debatably

Above: The debate team’s leaders, Grace Luckett and Dakota Champagne (‘19), explaining debate policy and structure to some of the team’s members.

Just days before a weekend tournament at the Achievement First Brooklyn high school, Ms. Natalie Palonco, the debate team’s newly instated coach, discusses the issue of paid college athletes, explaining that “the FLSA status is not dependent on the non-profit, it’s dependent on the six conditions laid out by the universities” to which Dakota Champagne (‘19), one of the team’s leaders, responds, “no, but if they’re qualified as volunteers then they don’t even get to those six qualifications,” to which Grace Luckett (‘19), the other leader, agrees, saying that “if they’re outside of the scope of being employees because – and we have it in the block here – they’re certified as volunteers….”

I interject politely – “what exactly is a ‘block.’” Grace turns to me, a pitying look upon her face, and begins explaining, “well you see, a block is basically a prewritten rebuttal, with evidence behind it.” She provides an example of one, reading aloud, “in contrast to scholars who portray developmental states as highly autonomous entities, unconstrained by coalitional demands, we contend that developmental states will only emerge….” Meanwhile, the other two are continuing their stream of words, now onto the matter of “K’s” and “negs,” to which I again am forced to ask for clarification.

Their rhetoric – fervent, fast, a crescendo of facts and argumentative language dotted with “debate jargon” – immediately indicated the team’s professional nature. So too does its leaders’ initiative. Grace and Dakota, both of whom spend their summers at prestigious debating camps, formed the team on their own volition just a year ago, entering Packer into the Catholic Forensics League with a small budget of only a few thousand dollars. Since then, under only student leadership, the team has been able to garner a number of members, upwards of seven, enough to fill three pairs of two debaters in tournaments.

Their most recent bout of enterprise has been the request, and the school’s subsequent acquisition, of a debating coach. Ms. Palonco, a high school state champion in public speech and debating, was hired by Packer almost as an athletic coach, with an hourly stipend for meeting times and attending weekend tournaments.

One of Ms. Palonco primary roles, along with mentoring the team’s members, is acting as a debate judge in many of these weekend tournaments. The policy at tournaments is that for each trio of debating pairs, the team needs to supply the tournaments with a judge. Prior to Ms. Palonco’s hiring, the team resorted to bringing parents as the acting judges, as the only other alternative was hiring one, a fee of up to 300 dollars. With a full-time coach, the problem has finally been solved.

Ms. Palonco’s other role as the coach is “two-fold,” she explains. The first is to support Grace and Dakota in their development as competitive debaters, because, as Ms. Palonco describes, “there’s a certain level of competition that you reach where you do need direct coaching – formal coaching.”

Her other role, she claims, is to “grow the team” in general. Beyond recruiting, Ms. Palonco also has a plan – and she requested eagerly to “add this to the article” – to form some public speaking and public forum events for Packer students. She went on to explain that “Packer has a really good infrastructure for speech – they have a very good theatre program.”

The future is bright for Packer’s debate team under their new coach, but they have yet to tackle all of their hurdles. Debate is hardly inexpensive –  transportation, hotels, coaching, and the price of tournament entrance can all amount to healthy sum – and while many schools receive an abundance of funding, Packer’s does not. It is not that the school is miserly, by any means, but rather that debate team funding is usually provided by alumni – not the school’s operating budget.

Poly Prep Country Day School, which boasts of a notable debating program, is apparently under an agreement “that says, every year, we are giving you ‘x’ amount of money to run this program, and we want a full-time coach, and so forth,” Ms. Bishop, Upper School Dean of Student Life and Leadership, explained. “And that isn’t quite our dynamic,”

It is not a grave matter, however, as Ms. Bishop assured that Packer would provide financial support. And, of course, with the debate team’s passion and its torrid growth of late, one could only expect alumni donations some years down the line.

Raphael Wood, a senior in his third year on the Prism staff, is currently co-editor-in-chief of the Packer Prism.

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