Orange Park schools selected to join Florida Civics and Debate Initiative

Project part of state’s $5 million project to promote research-based debate

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ORANGE PARK – Two Clay County schools are receiving funding from a state initiative to kickstart expanded civics education and create two debate teams.

Orange Park High and Orange Park Junior High will use $5 million from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ Florida Civics and Debate Initiative to create debate teams for students when the 2020-21 school year begins in a few months. The Clay County School District social studies specialist Kelly Watt will help lead the initiative at the schools as she and school volunteers create an environment welcoming of research-based debate.

“It’s an initiative to encourage students in junior high and high school to engage in debate and the big idea is that we know there are tons of benefits for speech and debate,” Watt said. “Right now, in Florida, we want to ensure we have a way to teach civil discourse to our students. Civil discourse is the hallmark of a good citizen.”

DeSantis announced in January that a multi-year $5 million grant from the Marcus Foundation, Inc. had been secured to elevate civic knowledge, civic skills and civic disposition for middle and high school students through speech and debate. DeSantis announced roughly six months later that he and Florida Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran had selected 60 schools, representing 28 districts in the state, to participate in phase one of the Florida Civics and Debate Initiative using the Marcus Foundation funding. OPH and OPJH are two of those 60 schools and Watt said the district believes them to be a perfect fit for the initiative.

Watt said one of DeSantis’ focuses in office has been the elevation of civics education in Florida. She said he wants Florida to have the best civics curriculum in the nation and these new debate teams will help the state reach that goal. Seventh grade civics in Clay County has been in the top five of the state for a few years now and Watt said this initiative could help them climb even higher.

“It’s important that we teach civics and nurture that in our classrooms and outside of our classrooms with things like debate teams,” Watt said. “Our students need to understand the importance of civility in discourse. As citizens, we have to listen and respect each other, respect each other’s claims, reason with facts and research….applying critical thinking to carefully articulate ideas and support them with research is key. It helps grow the kinds of citizens we need.”

This initiative provides funding to create the debate team, purchase necessary supplies and equipment, pay for training for volunteers, cover the cost of travel and more. Watt said the main takeaway from the funding is that every student that wants to participate will be able to participate and they’ll be able to do so without worrying about money.

“I think those schools receiving the funding, it validates what we stand for and what we believe our students can do,” Watt said. “We’ve always made decisions based upon the firm belief that our students are truly capable of impacting the community. They’re not just going through the motions. They’re learning how they can change, help and impact their community.

“Their experiences matter and this will give them the opportunity to learn to articulate and share their experience, their beliefs and their story and that will make a difference in the world.”

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