We Are L.A. Unified

Cameron Ward likes to cite a recent poll that revealed public speaking is the number one fear of Americans. Death came in second.

But public speaking probably ranks lower in fear at the Los Angeles Unified School District, thanks largely to Cameron’s efforts. Since 2008, he has been executive director of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Debate League. This year, 19 regular and charter high schools participated in the program, attracting 450 District students. Both figures totaled all-time highs.

Four L.A. Unified students will compete this upcoming weekend at the Eighth Annual Urban Debate National Championship Tournament at the University of Southern California: Cedric Bonsol and Eric Johnston from Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School; and Diana Alvarez and Khristyan Trejo from Marc and Eva Stern Math and Science School. Khristyan is also being recognized as runner up for “Urban Debater of the Year.”
 
The league, funded mainly from donations, operates on a shoestring budget. The District contributes $25,000, which covers transportation and trophies, along with stipends for faculty advisors. Cameron works with a team of volunteers, and is the only paid staff member.
 
A key selling point to prospects turns out to be his own story. The 33-year-old, who grew up in a low-income neighborhood in the Bay Area, was an indifferent student, a situation compounded by his challenging home life.
 
Though his high school featured a debate team, he was far from impressed, at least initially. “It sounded nerdy to me.” His view changed after attending a competition. The team spirit, the intensity, and the verbal pyrotechnics were anything but nerdy.
“I got hooked,” said Cameron. “I signed up, and two days later I was in a tournament.” The event didn’t go well for Cameron’s team, but winning individual honors stoked his competitive fire.

As a senior, he won top speaker at a prestigious debate tournament in Berkeley. “To finish first among kids whose families spent $30,000 and $40,000 per year on private school…,” his voice trailed off as he shook his head at the memory of his accomplishment.
 
College and university recruiters noticed his performance. A few weeks later, Cameron accepted a full scholarship to attend California State University, Fullerton. “Getting that award sent me to college,” he said.

That pattern holds today for participants. For four consecutive years, every debater competing in the debate program has graduated on-time and attended college.
 
“Each year debaters spend hundreds of hours doing self-directed research on important policy issues. Advanced debaters will conduct a similar amount of research as a graduate students working on their thesis project,” Cameron noted.
 
At tournaments, those who flourish or struggle in the classroom become allies and rivals. These contests appeal to students across the academic spectrum. Debate helps students develop the skills they need to be successful in the classroom and beyond.
 
Cameron has a persuasive pitch, geared to anyone joining a debate team. “If you’re a great student, this will make you better. If you’re not a great student, this will get you there.”
 
-Thomas Waldman
A list of schools participating in the Los Angeles Metropolitan
Debate League www.lamdl.org http://bit.ly/1N5liaw
To nominate a teacher, student, employee or volunteer, send an email to Waldman@lausd.net or call 213-241-6766. To see more profiles on the Distirct's website, go to http://bit.ly/1Fp25bGour news article