Honing the craft: Leah Ann Ince

HARLINGEN — Middle schoolers, your time has come.

Speech, drama and debate has been the realm of high school competition in Harlingen for many years, said Leah Ann Ince.

She’s been the speech, drama and debate teacher at Harlingen High School South for more than 25 years as well as the UIL coach. Her students have taken home numerous awards from state and national competitions.

Now in her new position as instructional coach for Speech, Drama and Debate for the Harlingen school district, she’s making it possible for middle schoolers to take a more active role.

“This initiative not only is going to give kids the opportunity to compete on the national level but it’s going to put HCISD on the national stage as well,” Ince said. “That’s what we’re excited about.”

Ince was busy yesterday at a speech, drama and debate workshop for both middle and high school students. They were spread throughout the Performing Arts Center on Wilson Road. Their presence at the same workshop seemed to reflect the beginning of a new era in the craft of speech drama and debate in the Harlingen school district.

Middle schoolers nationwide have participated in the craft of public speaking for several years, but their involvement at this level is new for Harlingen. Local middle schoolers have participated in some speech, drama and debate activities for awhile, but on a much smaller scale.

“It’s just been a local district tournament,” she said. “That’s pretty much all the middle schools could do. They could practice and prepare for one day where they competed against other kids from Harlingen, San Benito, Los Fresnos….and that was it.”

But now they’re being brought into the big leagues, competing in events coordinated by the National Speech and Drama Association.

“It’s an honor society for speech and debate members,” she said, speaking with excitement about the new opportunities being offered to local middle schoolers.

“Not only can the kids accumulate points and degrees to become higher ranking members of the honor society, the big kicker is this year, for the first time, we are going to have a national qualifier for our middle school students,” she said.

That qualifier will be held Feb. 10.

“The top two students in every event are going to get to qualify for nationals in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, this year,” she said.

“What’s really cool about it is there aren’t many middle school programs where you can be a national competition.”

Local talent is already showing itself.

“I thought maybe five or 10 kids would be interested at each campus,” she said. “But this thing just exploded. It took off like I’ve never seen it. Vela has over 35 kids on their team. They’re beating high school kids at these tournaments.”

Everyone is excited about the new initiative, Ince said.

“You can tell it’s my passion to see all those little kids getting the opportunity to compete,” she said. “My heart is full. It’s giving kids a place to belong where they didn’t have a place.”

As the middle schoolers take off into the world of national drama and debate, Ince continues with other new duties. She’s still overseeing the speech drama and debate programs at Harlingen High School and Harlingen High School South.

She’s in charge of Harlingen South’s presentation of “The Wizard of Oz.” Harlingen High School is performing “Tracks”, a more sobering tale based on the true story of undocumented immigrants left to die in a trailer in the 1990s near Victoria.

“We’ve been able to bring in some outstanding consultants,” she said.