Expanding Extracurricular Activities for Rural Students: The Rural Debate Initiative

A new nonprofit hopes to enrich extracurricular offerings to students across rural America by lowering the barriers to participate in debate.

February 16, 2023 |

After school activities are just as essential to a rural student's future success as are innovate in-class offerings. While sports teams and professional clubs like FFA and business clubs are hallmark features in many rural districts, it is often a challenge to sustain Humanities-based extracurricular groups like bands; theater groups; and debate, speech, or forensics teams. Rural Schools Collaborative recently had the opportunity to meet with Kelly Mu, Co-Founder and President, and Grant Zhang, Co-Founder and Chairperson, of the Rural Debate Initiative. Rooted in their own experiences participating in and witnessing the transformative power of debate, Kelly and Grant created the Rural Debate Initiative and were excited to share their story of this new work below.

The Rural Debate Initiative (RuDI) is a non-profit organization that aims to expand access to competitive debate for secondary school students in rural areas. We provide free virtual debate programs and supplementary programs through partnerships with secondary schools and districts. Our current debate programs include weekly coaching sessions, internal tournaments, and summer debate camps. Our goal is to simplify the often costly and complicated process of starting and maintaining a competitive debate program. We offer many different collaboration models with varying levels of commitment, the lowest of which is close to zero.

In addition to the cost of hiring coaches and purchasing materials, competing at 1 major debate tournament for 1 team would traditionally mean:

2 * $150 (2 hotel rooms for 2 nights, one for the team one for the coach) + $100 (travel cost for 3) + $75 (tournament entry fee) + $400 (payment for coaches for 3 days of work) + 3 * $100 (meal for 3 for 3 days)

= $1,175 for one in-state tournament within driving distance

This calculation does not even take into consideration the day-to-day cost of maintaining debate programs, hiring coaches, and participating in summer debate camps. The high cost of debate competition and education means that many schools, especially rural schools, miss out on the benefits brought by debate. Further, unlike urban students who are covered by the Urban Debate League, rural students do not have an institutional network to support them.

COVID has had a negative impact on student engagement and led to significant learning loss. However, research has shown that extra-curricular activities such as debate improve interpersonal relationships and increase academic confidence. Debate supports deeper relationships between students and their peers, as well as students and their teachers, as it requires a significant amount of collaboration.

Debaters not only achieve better standardized test scores and academic performance, but also build a valuable tool set that is beneficial for any level of education and any profession. Debate requires students to logically dissect the arguments of their opponents and think of real-life impact to support their own arguments. Switch-side debating also allows students to explore alternative systems of belief and critically choose their stance, making them more informed and active citizens. Furthermore, debate allows students to build strong presentation skills and the ability to think on their feet, and gives students confidence in their own voice and the worthiness of their opinion. You can read about how debate has impacted the path of one of our founders here: https://www.ruraldebateinitiative.org/post/debater-spotlight-grant-zhang

We are regionally focused in our outreach and organizational efforts and plan to continue to do so. As a nascent start-up, we are building our network and are interested in initiating discussions with secondary schools that would like to learn more about setting up debate as an extracurricular, an elective, or a tool to be used in the classroom. We would appreciate any introduction to school teachers and authorities who are interested in working with us.

Thank you to Kelly Mu for sharing this blog post with Rural Schools Collaborative. If you'd like to learn more, please visit their website here or reach out at: ruraldebateinitiative@gmail.com

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