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2014-15 Speech, Debate and Theatre Award Winners

By Ben Sieck on May 06, 2015 speech debate & theatre directors & judges article Print

Section Awards

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Section 2 – Dana Higginbotham Tickle

Dana Tickle has 23 years of teaching under her belt, and she has spent 16 of those years as a theatre and speech educator. Her career began in the Culpeper County (Virginia) School District at the middle school level, where she first became involved in drama education. In 2004, she joined the Jefferson Forest High School located in Bedford, Virginia, to teach drama.

 Tickle came to a program with just 20 returning students. By the time she was finished at Jefferson Forest, well over 100 students were enrolled in the drama program. In addition to teaching drama, Tickle also started the first debate team in Bedford County and she also coached the forensics team in 2007-08 school year.

Tickle currently works at George Washington High School in Danville, Virginia. When she started, only nine students had reenrolled in the drama program. She was also tasked with building a Forensics team from scratch and helping the debate team. In the first year of the forensics program Tickle coached a state champion in storytelling and oversaw a debate team that qualified for state competition. Additionally, she now oversees 150 theatre and speech students.


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Section 3 – Dr. Barbara Lowe

Dr. Barbara Lowe began her speech and debate career while still in high school. A member of the McComb (Mississippi) High School National Forensic League (NFL) chapter, she became a lifetime member of NFL in 1977. During her time at Tulane University, she was able to co-direct her first play, Arsenic and Old Lace, which was performed at McMain Magnet School in New Orleans.

After graduating with a Master’s Degree from Simmons College in Boston, Lowe took her work to The Fessenden School, a day and boarding school for K-9 boys in Massachusetts. There, she directed four performances, one being a second production of Arsenic and Old Lace. In 2004, Lowe began working at Oxford (Mississippi) High School. She taught four English classes and two debate classes.

While at Oxford, Lowe revived the speech and debate program. The program hadn’t had a performance for more than 15 years. She began to create a program with little resources, attending just one tournament a year. “The past 10 years have been an education in advocacy,” she said. With tremendous growth and support, Lowe has been able to increase the involvement in Oxford’s speech and debate program to 58 students to attend 11 tournaments.


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Section 4 – Carol Harms

Carol Harms’ speech education career has spanned 36 years. Since she began teaching in 1979, she has taught, coached, judged, and directed thousands of speech and debate students.

Harms began her career in 1979 at Jacksonville (Illinois) High School teaching speech and English, as well as coaching the debate and speech teams. The Jacksonville debate team was one of the only programs in Central Illinois at the time. Later, she worked as the head debate coach for Red Bud (Illinois) High School from 1987 to 1990 and 1991 to 1994. She was hired to teach speech and English and served as the speech team coach at Belleville East (Illinois) High School in 1994. She moved from speech coach to debate team coach in 1997, a position she held until 2005.

After a five year hiatus from coaching, Harms returned to Belleville East in 2010 to resume head coaching responsibilities for the debate team. She said her primary motivation for coming out of retirement was ensuring the school’s debate program would continue to survive. She said her personal philosophy on education is to provide an educational opportunity for every student, and the best way to keep that sentiment alive is to employ teachers and administrators who are passionate about certain programs such as speech and debate.


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Section 5 – Pamela McComas

Pamela McComas has dedicated the last 42 years of her life to forensics education. She began her career in 1973 at Highland Park High School in Topeka, Kansas, as an assistant debate and forensics coach. In 1978, she became the director of forensics at Topeka (Kansas) High School, a position she served for the next 36 years. In addition to her forensics duties, McComas also taught classes such as debate, acting, speech, humanities and history of film.

McComas has also made significant contributions to many related professional organizations. She has been a National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) board representative for the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) since 2013. She was on the NFHS Speech Advisory Committee from 1995 to 1999. She has been an elected board member of the NDSA since 2006, her current term is set to expire in 2018.

McComas has received numerous awards and recognitions for her work. She was inducted into the Kansas Speech Communications Association (KSCA) Hall of Fame in 2009, and was named KSCA Outstanding High School Speech Teacher of the Year in 1982. In 2004, she was inducted into the NDSA Hall of Fame. She has coached more than 170 students to national competition, and 15 NSDA All-Americans. She has also won the Kansas State High School Activities Association (KSHSAA) 6A State Debate Championship four times, and finished as runner up six times.


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Section 6 – Trey Smith

Trey Smith’s speech and debate educational career began at Manzano High School in Albuquerque, New Mexico as an assistant coach for three years before he accepted a position with the University of New Mexico Student Affairs Division. While at UNM, Smith felt the need to need to sponsor a collegiate debate opportunity for students. Thus, he sponsored a team which competed across the country. The UNM team won a novice national championship in 2005. However, despite his success at the collegiate level, Smith felt his true calling was in high school debate.

Smith was hired by East Mountain High School located outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, to build a speech and debate team from scratch in 2007. Smith began with only six students, but nearly doubled program involvement every year. Today more than 50 students are involved in the program in a school of roughly 330 students. In 2010, Smith’s students won the overall state championship, unseating a 24-time defending state champion in the process.

In his time with East Mountain, Smith has coached more than 40 national qualifiers. In 2012, one of his students, Quinlan Cao, was named the National Student of the Year. His teams were ranked in the top eight in the world by the International Public Policy Forum in 2013 and 2014, and the National Forensic League ranks his program in the top 5 percent of schools nationwide.

Smith has been recognized by the New Mexico Speech and Debate Association (NMSDA) as the 2003 Speech Coach of the year and the Debate Coach of the Year in 2010 and 2011. He has also served as the President of the NMSDA.


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Section 7 – Phaidra Atkinson

Phaidra Atkinson has taught high school theater for 13 years at Highland High School in Salt Lake City, Utah, and over that time she has directed more than 100 high school musicals and plays. Several productions have won various competitions; include a run of five straight first place finishes at the Shakespeare High School Theatre Competition.

Giving back to her profession is important to Atkinson. She has been an active member and served in various roles with the Utah Theatre Association Board and the Utah High School Activities Association. She took her dedication one step further by founding the Utah Advisory Council of Theatre Teachers.

Not only does she teach and direct but she also acts. Atkinson has performed in with many of the theatre groups in her area including Pinnacle Acting Company and The Grand Theatre.


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Section 8 – Jeffery Stoppenhagen

From 1997 to 2012, Jeffrey Stoppenhagen held the position of associate director of forensics at Boise State University helping the school’s speech and debate team to two national championships. Since taking his current position as the director of forensics at the high school level in the Nampa (Idaho) District, where he has been since 2012, Stoppenhagen has quickly become a leader at the high school level.

Stoppenhagen believes that in order to prepare students for their future it is his responsibility to help students make connections between what they think and say, and how they can use those skills to not only better themselves, but the community as well.

He is a member of the Idaho Speech Arts Teachers Association (ISATA) Idaho State Board and was the 2013 ISATA Speech Arts Teacher of the Year. Stoppenhagen also currently serves as the national president of the speech honorary Pi Kappa Delta.


State Awards

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Carl Grecco, Pennsylvania

Carl Grecco’s career has spanned over six different decades. All told, he has dedicated 53 years of his life to speech and debate education. As impressive as his length of servitude is, it is matched by his loyalty. Grecco has stayed with one school his entire career: Harry S. Turman (formerly Woodrow Wilson) High School in Levittown, Pennsylvania.

He was first hired in 1962 to be the assistant director to the drama program. But in that first year of teaching, the Debate and Forensics director became ill, leading Grecco to fulfill that position as well. He went on to hold both positions until the late 1960s when he was forced to give up his position in the drama department due to time constraints. He retired from classroom teaching in 1998, but remains the coach of the Debate and Forensic program.

Grecco was appointed to the Pennsylvania High School Speech League (PHSSL) Executive Board in 1965, and served on that board for more than 35 years. He was inducted into the PHSSL Hall of Fame in 1991. He serves as President of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Debate League (SPDL), a league he developed a constitution, by laws and standing rule for. Grecco is also the only National Forensic League 7 Diamond Coach in Pennsylvania history. He said he appreciates all the recognition he has garnered over the years, but he is most proud of the huge number of students he has coached who have then gone on to be successful adults.


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Emily Nelson, Mississippi

When the leadership of Mississippi Speech and Debate made the decision to launch an initiative to build activity in the northern part of the state six years ago, Emily Nelson was the group’s first call. Nelson, who was serving as the Desoto County (Mississippi) School District executive director of leadership development jumped at the opportunity.

With Nelson heading the charge, she directed the first annual speech and debate tournament in North Mississippi as well as the first annual middle school speech and debate tournament in the state. She has also overseen efforts to secure outside donations in order to ensure several tournaments come at no charge to competitors. For her effort and success she was named Mississippi Speech, Debate and Theatre Educator of the Year, becoming the first administrator to earn this distinction.


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Beth Eskin, Florida

Beth Eskin’s speech and debate education career has spanned 29 years. She currently coaches and teaches speech and debate at Timber Creek High School in Orlando, Florida. She built the speech and debate program at Timber Creek from the school’s inaugural year in 2001, and began with only four students. Today, Timber Creek boasts the largest and most competitively successful forensics program in Orange County Public Schools. She oversees an active squad of more than 100 students.

Eskin’s team won the 2009 Public Forum Debate State Championship and they have advanced deep in elimination rounds at many national circuit tournaments, including semifinals at the Tournament of Champions, Emory and U Penn co-champions. She currently holds the distinction of being named Florida State Debate Coach of the Year.

She is also the co-director of the Central Florida Debate Initiative (CFDI), whose goal is to bring access to speech and debate to more public schools. She serves as the chair of the Florida Panther District of the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) and co-chairs the NSDA Public Forum Debate Wording Committee. She also serves as Regional Director for the Florida Forensic League and is a former president of the North Florida Catholic Forensic League. 


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Rebecca Arensman-Gilbert, Michigan

Rebecca Arensman-Gilbert’s speech education career began 23 years ago, and has included just two stops along the way: Christa McAuliffe Middle School in Bay City, Michigan, and John Glenn High School in Westland, Michigan.

Under Arensman-Gilbert’s direction, those schools have seen the theatre and speech programs grow from a lightly-attended extra-curricular program to a thriving program with classes being taught in Music, High School Theatre, Middle School Theatre, Speech Communications and Public Speaking and Film Literature. Last year the Performing Arts program earned over $100,000 from school of choice students who transferred to John Glenn specifically for the Performing Arts program.


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Ann Williamsen, Iowa

Ann Williamsen’s teaching career began teaching Spanish at Okoboji (Iowa) High School in 1986. However, when the superintendent noticed she participated in speech in high school, she was asked to assist in coaching the musical and large group speech programs.

Today, she is still at Okoboji High School, where the small school averages 50 to 60 students in large group speech. She has coached numerous state qualifiers to medal-winning performances; including an All State performance in improv. 

Willamsen has served the Iowa High School Speech Association as a district officer; she also served eight years on the judge certification committee.


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Kathy Martin, Minnesota

Kathy Martin has been employed by the Dilworth Glyndon Felton (Minnesota) School District since 1983 when she accepted a one year long term sub contract as an instructor of English. In the fall of 1983, the school district made a decision to eliminate the competitive speech program. Martin offered to coach it for one year with no salary attachments. Eventually, she managed to convince the district to keep the speech program, a decision that led to the district joining the National Forensic League in 1987.

Martin has won numerous awards over her 32-year teaching career. She was named the Minnesota Speech Coaches Association Class A Coach of the Year in 2013, 2009 and 2005. She earned the Minnesota Speech Coaches Association Distinguished Service Award in 2006 and the Outstanding Individual in Communication and Theater Award in 2012. She is a four-time winner of the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) Section Coach of the Year Award, and she has also been named the MSHSL Sub-Section Coach of the Year 11 times since the award was created in 1991.


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Todd Schnake, Missouri

Todd Schnake’s educational career has spanned 24 years, all within the Raymore-Peculiar (Missouri) School District. Schnake started teaching in 1991 at Raymore-Peculiar Middle School, after two years there, he moved on to Raymore-Peculiar High School where he continues to teach today.

When Schnake made the move to the high school level, he also assumed the responsibility of coaching the debate and forensics teams as well as directing the school’s plays. He served as debate coach for five years, before stepping down to concentrate on forensics and play direction.

Schnake has received numerous honors over the course of his teaching career. He was named the Speech and Theatre Association of Missouri Outstanding Theatre Teacher for the 2006-07 school year, and the Missouri State Thespian Theatre Teacher of the Year in 2005. He is a National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) Three Diamond Coach.


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Maryjane Burton, Oklahoma

Maryjane Burton’s career has included stops at Choctaw-Nicoma Park Middle School and Choctaw High School located in Choctaw, Oklahoma. She is a two-time Teacher of the Year winner. She won the award in 1997-98 and 2001-02. She was also named Choctaw-Nicoma Park School District Teacher of the Year in 2002.

Burton has a long track record of success in competitive performing arts. She has won nine state titles in one act play competition, coached one state runner-up finish and owns 11 regional titles. In total, she has coached 57 state finalists and had 13 national qualifiers compete in eight different events.


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J. Scott Baker, Texas

J. Scott Baker began his teaching career 18 years ago at Haltom High School in Fort Worth, Texas. While at Haltom, Baker founded the schools speech and debate teams and coordinated district University Interscholastic League (UIL) competition. He coached both teams at Haltom for three years before moving on to the Cypress Fairbanks Independent School District in Houston, Texas, in 2000.

Baker works at three different high schools within the Cypress Fairbanks district: Cypress Creek, Cypress Ridge and Jersey Village High Schools. His duties at these schools center on speech and debate teaching and coaching. In addition to coaching numerous qualifiers at the state level, Baker has also coached 35 students who have qualified for national competition over the last 15 years.

Baker is currently recognized as a National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) Three Diamond Coach. He was also a nominee for 2005 Disney Teacher of the Year, and presented at the Texas Council of Superintendants of Special Education in 2006.


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Cassie Alber, Arizona

Cassie Alber’s first full-time speech head coaching position came at Sioux City North (Iowa) High School in 1995. Her success in Sioux City led her to be hired by Desert Vista High School in Phoenix, Arizona, to coach their speech team in 1998. She spent two years with Desert Vista, during which time she helped plan the hosting of the national competition being held in the state.

In 2000, she moved to Mesquite High School in Gilbert, Arizona, and took a nine-year hiatus from coaching to focus on her family. When she returned to coaching in 2009, she had a program that consisted of only 12 students. That program now boasts more than 45. She has coached several individual state champions, and the team has consistently placed in the top programs in the state.


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Jennifer LeSieur, Oregon

Jennifer LeSieur is wrapping up her 11th year teaching and coaching speech at Clackamas (Oregon) High School. In addition to her teaching duties, she serves as secretary for the Oregon High School Speech League leadership committee. She was also elected to the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA) district leadership committee.

LeSieur has taken students to the state tournament every year, and her team has placed second in the state twice since 2010. She has had several individual state winners in events such as LD, impromptu and student congress. She has also taken students to NSDA nationals almost every year coaching.

LeSieur was voted Optimist International Outstanding Teacher and Coach in 2012. In 2014, she was given the Golden Apple Teaching Award by her students. This year, she was named Oregon Speech Educator of the Year by her colleagues.


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Judie Roberts, Utah

Judie Roberts’ speech education career has spanned more than 20 years. Over that time, she has built a powerhouse forensics program at Skyline High School in Salt Lake City, Utah. For 12 years her school was the smallest 5A school in the state of Utah, yet her program never finished worse than sixth in that time. In 2013, Skyline took home the 4A State Championship.

Roberts has coached more than 200 qualifiers to the National Forensic League (NFL) and National Catholic Forensic League (NCFL) National Tournaments. She is a Triple Diamond NFL coach who has coached more than 4 NFL Academic All-Americans. 


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Richard Cortes, Idaho

Richard Cortes began his speech education career while he was still in college. After competing in speech in debate in high school at Snake River High School in Blackfoot, Idaho, Cortes helped the program out as an assistant coach while he was an undergraduate student. After leaving the program in 2004 and joining the corporate world, Cortes found he missed working with students and returned to school to receive his teaching certification.

Today, Cortes is in the midst of his sixth year of teaching debate and mainstream speech at Rigby (Idaho) High School. When he arrived the debate program had nine students enrolled in the course and only one returning student. This year, there are 65 students enrolled in the beginning course and our competitive team has 25 members.  In the past 5 years his students have consistently qualified for Idaho State tournaments. He has also had students compete at NFL Nationals twice.