Idaho Falls kids organize, run debate

IDAHO FALLS — High school junior Megan Plummer knew this was no time to panic with just 24 hours to go before the final state superintendent’s debate of the campaign season.

Compass Debate Preview
Compass Academy students participate in a debate dress rehearsal Wednesday in Idaho Falls.

Plummer is one of 80 students at Compass Academy in Idaho Falls who is planning, organizing and running Thursday night’s showdown between Republican Sherri Ybarra and Democrat Jana Jones.

“My job is to keep them on track,” said Plummer, who will moderate the debate. “I am a little nervous – mostly because of the questions. We want them to be so perfect. We’ve changed them and edited them again and again.”

The students in three of Compass’ combined English and government classes have spent the past three weeks preparing for the debate.

They divided into teams and will handle every task and every bit of logistical legwork, making their effort the only true student-run debate in this race.

One team of students handled advertising – spreading the word across Idaho Falls, Rexburg, St. Anthony, Driggs, Bear Lake and beyond.

Another team handles the audio and visual tech needs.

Another scoured the community assembling debate questions. The students sought out school board members, queried teachers and hounded parents and fellow students in the parking lots of local grocery stores to generate ideas.

Another team prepared the school’s auditorium and will serve as ushers.

A different group launched a class website for the debate.

Compass Alt
Idaho Falls students act as stand-ins for the candidates during a debate dress rehearsal Wednesday.

The level of focus among the teenagers became apparent during the dress rehearsal – one of at least two dry runs the students undertook Wednesday to work out the final kinks.

“It’s time for you to go to lunch,” teacher Stephanie Remsburg called out.

“I’ve got stuff to do,” student Nathan Bidstrup answered, determined to perfect the auditorium sound by eliminating any microphone feedback.

Remsburg just smiled as Bidstrup continued to toil throughout his lunch break.

“I really think it’s the authentic end piece that makes them step up,” Remsburg said.

Remsburg and government teacher Holly Dasher said they began the academic term planning to study bias in politics and journalism with the election looming. But after immersing themselves in coverage of the state superintendent’s race, the students pushed their teachers to amend the lesson plan and allow them to run their own debate.

The project fits within the overall atmosphere at Compass, a magnet school that is part of the Idaho Falls School District. The school launched in 2012-13, the first in Idaho to be affiliated with the nonprofit New Tech Network. Inside Compass, two or more traditional courses are routinely combined to create a hybrid class. Student collaboration on real-world projects – many of which the students are expected to publish or present publicly – is the norm.

Every student is issued a laptop, and many of them take dual enrollment courses in conjunction with Idaho State University.

For the debate project, there are two goals  – to present a professional, informational debate to the community and for the students to educate themselves about the political process to become informed citizens and voters.

“It was really important to learn exactly what the office of superintendent was,” junior Brady Griffith said. “I knew they had a role in education, but I did not know their specific duties or how they have control over things.”

Now, the students don’t miss a beat when Common Core standards, tiered licensure or the Legislature get brought up.

The only thing left for them, as they said, is to keep the candidates on track.

“It definitely feels like a lot of pressure because this is the last (debate),” senior Carmen Sleight, the debate’s emcee said. “This is the last time you’ll hear from the candidates, straight from their own mouths, before Election Day.”

More information

Thursday night’s debate is open to the public and begins at 7 p.m. inside the auditorium at Compass Academy, 955 Garfield St., in Idaho Falls. There will be 10 questions, and each candidate will have three minutes to respond. A meet-and-greet with the candidates will follow the one-hour debate.  Check back with Idaho Education News Thursday night for full coverage of the debate.

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