Building a winning tradition

St. Vincent High School debate team enjoys continuing success

By COLLEEN RUSTAD, photo by Terry Hankins/Argus-Courier staff

As director of speech and debate at St. Vincent de Paul High School, Laila McClay is living out her family legacy as a teacher and debate coach. However, she brings more than just family tradition to the job. Her skill, passion and commitment are evident in the success of the students she coaches.

McClay, a former reporter for KQED and National Public Radio, marvels at the series of events that led to her current position. Following the birth of her son, who is now 7, McClay was looking to go back to work part-time when she happened upon a posting at for a debate coach.

“That moment changed my life. I had debated in high school and college, but it wasn’t until years after I was hired at St. Vincent that my mother discovered that my grandmother was the debate coach at Petaluma High in 1920. That’s when I realized that there was something much bigger guiding me,” she says.

Debating isn’t the only talent that runs in the family and that has come full circle for McClay. “The family business is teaching. Both my parents and brother are professors. I thought I was bucking the family trend by going into journalism. I ended up being a teacher anyway,” she says.

McClay coaches 48 students, comprising six varsity teams and 18 junior varsity teams. Each team has two students, which McClay says is like a marriage. “It’s a balancing act knowing when to stay together and when to break up.”

For the past two years, the St. Vincent debate team has been ranked in the top 10 percent by the National Forensic League. “We compete against schools 10 times our size, with four or more coaches. That’s one reason I am so proud,” McClay says.

Getting to this level involves traveling to tournaments throughout California and across the country to earn points. The St. Vincent team has been to North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Nevada with JV teams competing in more tournaments closer to home such as at the University of Southern California, Stanford, and last weekend, at the University of California, Berkeley.

At the Stanford Invitational earlier this month, senior Kara Flageollet and junior Laynie Stephens finished in the top 20 teams out of 2,500 competitors and have already qualified for the NDCA National Championship in Pennsylvania in April.

At the Berkeley competition, the team of Kara Flageollet and Laynie Stephens advanced further than any previous St. Vincent team. In addition, the team of Hisa Tome and James Fidler qualified for the national tournament in Pennsylvania.

The reason McClay willingly sacrifices time away from her family is because of the positive feedback she gets from students years later.

“It’s the only activity I’ve seen where high school kids are doing college level reading and research, and dealing with it in such complex way. They go on to great colleges and I get an e-mail from them saying, ‘Now I get it. I learned how to talk about things that weren’t obvious.’ That’s why debate is so addicting,” McClay says.

Unlike many school activities, debate is not seasonal. Debaters attend a three- to seven-week summer camp at various college campuses and then begin spending about 30 hours each week researching as soon as school begins.

The topic for this year is “Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially reduce its military and/or police presence in one or more of the following: South Korea, Japan, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq, Turkey.”

Students must be prepared to argue both the affirmative and negative sides. Their research includes many disciplines, such as philosophy, psychology, history and political science.

“One of the things I love about teaching debate is that it gives us the opportunity to talk about any issue. We don’t have to keep to a particular textbook or curriculum,” McClay says.

To illustrate, she adds, “Where else are you going to find high school kids talking about epistemology on a Sunday afternoon?”

(Contact Colleen Rustad at