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Apple Valley High School touts nationally-renowned speech and debate program

Apple Valley H.S. touts nationally-renowned speech, debate programs
Apple Valley H.S. touts nationally-renowned speech, debate programs 04:48

APPLE VALLEY, Minn. – Apple Valley High School has a nationally-renowned speech and debate program. 

It's been dominant for years, producing state and national champions. But behind all that is a story of love.

WCCO's A.J. Hilton attended AVHS, was part of the program, and knows that love firsthand. The school invited him back to talk to some teachers and students.

Love takes on many forms. For Pam Wycoff, it's speech and debate.

"I kind of think of it as a family affair, even though we're not all related," Wycoff said. "But, you know, once you become a part of this team, you really feel like you're part of a group of people that care about something exceptionally important."

Wycoff became the director of speech and debate at AVHS in 1989. Although she's now retired from teaching, her influence stretches generations.

"For me, because Scott [Voss] was my student and he still teaches here. And Tzitel [Voss] was my student teacher and she teaches here, and Dan [Hodges] did not come here but loves what we stand for," she said. "It's important to me that what made possibilities possible for so many kids will still happen."

Scott and Tzitel Voss married and are now the heart of the program, along with current head coach Dan Hodges.

"Speech and debate is what gave me my passion for words. It taught me empathy. It taught me hard work and dedication," Hodges said.


"The other element to that is putting young people in a position where … they gain a sense of confidence. So that now they know that when they sit down for that big test, that big interview, that big speech, they are going to do just fine," Scott Voss said.

"'Did you know that this was possible?' And having those conversations with students is very exciting," Tzitel Voss said. "We have so many students on our team who are looking at competing in college for speech."

Scott Voss says about 140 students tried out for the team, in which students perform, competing in different categories. They're scored by judges, and the best speakers win.

While they compete, they're working on skills that will carry them through life.

"It is incredibly important to me that this team reflect the school, which has become incredibly diverse," Hodges said.

"Part of it is representation. You know, we have so many people who are trying out from communities that haven't historically done co-curriculars, and specifically haven't done speech and debate," Scott Voss said.

Mfaz Mohamed Ali is one of those people. New to the team last year, she had a major impact. Not only did she just join the team, she qualified for the national tournament, and won. And that might not be her biggest accomplishment.

"Being the first Muslim girl on the stage in an interpretation category is huge, and being only the second Muslim girl in general to be on that stage, it's sad and a good thing at the same time," Ali said.

Her success has opened the door for others.

"Seeing all the new young Muslim girls join the team this year, and just like … having them say they look up to me is something that my heart just like, butterflies fly when I hear that," she said. "And it's so amazing to see them think they can do the same thing as me because they can, and I know they can."

Lydia Voss has been around speech most of her life. Maybe she got her love of the activity from her parents – coaches Scott and Tzitel. She says she attended her first tournament in fourth grade, and joined the middle school team in eighth grade. Since then, she's been hooked.

"You just get to make friends with people across all grades, across all different activities, and that just creates a bond that I don't think you get in like any other activity," Lydia Voss said. "Not only do you learn so much about communicating with other people, but you also build this bond with people in your school."

It all starts with the teachers.

"It is about like that opportunity to give voice to like things that matter. To like give voice to your truth in particular," Scott Voss said.

"We're so intentional about all that work, and we do it for the people right in front of us. In that moment, it's all for them," Hodges said. "But to know that it is translating, that people feel that. I was once told by a fellow coach, 'You know, I don't know what our school's identity is, but everybody knows what Apple Valley is about.'"

AVHS is doing something different, and is now helping other schools build their programs.

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