As urban educators struggle to find ways to better engage young people and excite them about learning, a new video tells the story of one approach in Baltimore—debate teams—that has shown promise and is now serving students across more than 50 middle and high schools.
The Baltimore Urban Debate League uses the art of debate as a tool to help improve student self-esteem, achievement, graduation rates, and access to higher education. The video, produced by the Open Society Foundation (one of the program’s financial supporters) highlights the team’s ability to offer an alternative to suspension and expulsion of students and describes the positive impact it has had on participants.
The Baltimore league, one of the oldest urban debate leagues for K-12 students, was launched in 1999 in one of the city’s most challenged high schools. Today, involves more than 1,000 students from 35 high schools and 25 middle schools. The program allows students to participate in after-school debate training, independent research activities, debate team practice sessions, and monthly competitive policy debate tournaments.
The video follows 13-year-old Kaela Pittman. In school, Kaela had a history of fighting and being disrespectful to educators, the video explains. Today, though, she is an award-winning debater.
Initially, Kaela wasn’t interested in joining the debate league. At her first tournament, though, she walked away with two trophies. And her success isn’t limited to debate. Like many other students who participate in their school’s teams, debate has helped Kaela find her voice.
“At first, I didn’t like school,” Kaela says in the video. “But now I do because I’ve learned some of the subjects I’m really good at.”
The video also features Deverick Murray, a former debater when he was a student who now is a debate coach in Baltimore.
“You think people ignore you, you think people don’t listen to you. You have a total of 13 minutes in a debate room where everyone has to shut up and listen to you,” he said in the video.
Murray suggests that his participation in the program changed his life.
“A lot of my friends are locked up, dead, or ... doing what they were doing when we were in high school,” he said. “If not for debate, I really have no idea where I would be.”
Data provided on the Baltimore Urban Debate League website suggests that participation in the debate league has improved students’ academic performance, attendance, and their likelihood of graduating high school and attending college.
“Instead of investing in children and fostering supportive environments where they can succeed, many school districts turn to suspensions, expulsions, and even arrests to deal with typical pre-adolescent and adolescent behavior,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, in an article for the Open Society Foundation.
The debate league isn’t unique to Baltimore. The National Association for Urban Debate Leagues, founded in 2002 and based in Chicago, supports leagues across the country, including in New York City, St. Louis, and the Bay Area, with the aim of helping to prepare students to succeed in college and their careers.
The idea behind the modern iteration of urban debate leagues came in the 1990s, when it became apparent that support for debate programs, especially in the inner cities, was dwindling, said Luke Hill, the manager for debate programs with the NAUDL.
For that reason, urban debate leagues started sprouting up to bring debate tournaments to these areas, rather than busing students to the suburbs for debate tournaments, he told me in a phone interview. They provide support to students and coaches to help grow their networks.
According to Hill, NAUDL is seeing increased participation across all its leagues and there is an increased effort to expand to reach more students, especially middle-schoolers.
Meanwhile, Education Week recently reported on the increasing use of technology for classroom debates that allow for new types of class engagement and enhanced learning experiences.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Time and Learning blog.