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Recruiting Students for Speech, Debate, Theatre Programs

By James Weaver on December 20, 2016 hst

Participation in interscholastic activities is an important ingredient to success at the 19,000-plus high schools around the United States. Recruiting students to become involved in these activities can be challenging, particularly when it comes to speech, debate and theatre programs.

The first step is identifying students who would benefit from participating in a speech, debate and/or theatre program. Talking to colleagues and department heads about promising students in speech, debate or theatre will often lead to some recommendations. Once those students have been identified, the next step is to create invitations to these individuals to welcome them to audition or sit in on rehearsals or practices. This provides students an opportunity to view the activity and talk to fellow students about what the activity means to them.

Ingredients for successful recruiting involve good planning, administrative support, student outreach and a friendly note to parents explaining the benefits of a speech program. Students who are involved in speech, debate or theatre activities are more attractive to colleges and scholarship committees.

It may seem counterproductive, but limiting the number of events that one student can enter in any year can help increase a program’s size and reach. Allowing each student to enter only three events adds a bit of urgency to students as they try to get involved in events. It forces a program to dip a little deeper into the talent pool, and often students who are not involved in other activities will dedicate themselves more to speech, debate or theatre activities.

School leaders should strive to attract new high school students to be involved in the program for many years, starting at the middle school level. A speech activity fair could be held at the middle school to talk with students about the opportunity to participate in speech, debate and theatre at the high school level. “Goodie bags” help promote speech activities and remind the students to keep thinking about participating when registration begins. This strategy is best done shortly before middle school students sign up for high school activities.

It is also helpful to borrow ideas from local coaches and directors. An information session could be held for parents and students that includes food related to the countries in the current debate topic or theatre production theme. The specific idea of what would appeal to students and their families depends on the program’s goal. Speech, debate and theatre budgets are small at most schools, making it important to be creative about resources and parent involvement. Some restaurants will donate food or a portion of proceeds when school programs distribute advertisements or encourage people to visit.

Getting parents onboard as volunteers is critical, not only to ensure a commitment from students, but also to gain support for the activity within the school. Sign-up sheets with a list of available positions
such as “Parent Judge,” “Parent Volunteer Organizer,” “School Support Leader,” “Community Visibility Leader” should be available. These are not simply decorative titles, because having active parents can be a great asset to any activity program.

Recruiting isn’t a once-a-year thing, and that’s especially the case if the first round doesn’t succeed. Even the best debate teams keep less than half of the students who show up at the first informational
meeting. The difference, however, is that successful programs keep casting the net and never give up. Football coaches always keep searching for athletic talent; speech and debate coaches and theatre directors have a wider pool from which to choose – they don’t have to recruit genetic giants or kids who run the 40-yard dash in under 4.6 seconds. Speech and debate coaches and theatre directors should look for students who might have something to say, a desire to compete and some ideas they could express effectively with some help.

Lastly, it is important to emphasize that students in these programs have fun. Speech, debate and theatre activities are lifelong activities where the skills learned can last a lifetime, and many students continue to do these activities well into adulthood. These activities help students to learn and engage the world and its ideas. As coaches and directors, work is being done to touch the lives of amazing students. Now is the time to go out there and encourage students to participate.