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Leagues Revive Debate in City Schools

By Bess Keller — April 15, 2008 8 min read
Judge Shorge Sato, left, listens to John Holland of Atlanta’s Grady High School.
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High school senior Cydney Edwards unclips a timer from the edge of her laptop screen and hovers briefly over the lectern that holds it. Up the aisle from her, here in the Abraham Lincoln moot court of Northwestern University’s school of law, five judges hunch over their computers, gazing impassively in her direction.

And then she’s off—with just eight minutes to set up the case that the U.S. government should substantially increase its public-health assistance to sub-Saharan African nations by lifting the rule that declares foreign aid off-limits to organizations that might have abortion-related activities.

Beating the air with her hands, gulping for breath between auctioneer-like runs of words intelligible mostly to the initiated, Cydney is practicing the arcane business of “policy” debate. She and her partner from Morgan Park High School on Chicago’s South Side will face off against their two competitors from Atlanta’s Grady High School six times across 90 minutes before this semifinal round is done.

Cydney, in a green Obama T-shirt, is just one of eight debaters still standing April 6, the final day of the first-ever urban debate national championship contest. She is also part of a movement that proponents say has raised skills and opened doors for more than 30,000 middle and high school students from city districts, with the potential to engage many more.

“What urban debate leagues do is lower the entry barriers,” said Eric M. Tucker, the deputy director of the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues, which created the tournament with underwriting from the J.P. Morgan Chase Foundation. Students need to start in their own schools and move on to contests that fit their level of skill if they are to get the intellectual and confidence-building benefits of debate, Mr. Tucker said.

In past decades, competitive debate along the lines adopted by the national association has involved tens of thousands of high schoolers, while mostly following the movement of white families to the suburbs. It thinned out even there, but for the most part died in the cities. The urban demise closed off a training ground for careers in law, business, and public service and a distinctive outlet for mouthy and some mousy kids who didn’t necessarily take well to classroom society.

Grades and Ambitions Up

Starting in Atlanta in 1985 and boosted by seed money from the billionaire George Soros’ Open Society Institute, urban educators and their supporters in 2002 formed the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues, based in Chicago. Such leagues are now part of 18 city school districts and involve more than 200 middle and 300 high schools serving largely poor and minority enrollments. Plans call for expansion to four more districts next year and another six in the near future.

Debate follows the “policy” format, which the national group considers the most academic of the four kinds of competitive argumentation practiced at the high school and college levels. The emphasis is not on persuasion as such, but on building and deconstructing policy proposals in nimble, sometimes creative ways.

Policy debate is resource intensive, with a single topic being intricately debated by all comers to the format for the entire school year. Urban high school debaters face stiff challenges when they go up against suburban schools with well-established programs and thousands of dollars to spend on research. So far, urban high school debaters have not consistently taken top national awards.

But that’s only a part of the payoff, proponents say. With as little as a year of debate under their belts, students start to reap benefits. The half-dozen studies of debate’s effect on students’ achievement and well-being show positive results. But absent more extensive research, debate advocates point to a wealth of personal testimony.

Nick Locke takes notes on the floor of Northwestern University’s law school while his competitor takes his turn at the lectern.

Anthony Salazar, a sophomore at Dallas’ W.T. White High School, for instance, gives debate credit for the boost in his grade point average from just above a C as a freshman to a B-plus this year.

“All the reading and the research intertwines with regular classwork and stuff,” said the 15-year-old, whose speech is deliberately paced in conversation as well as competition.

He hopes grades and debate will get him a college scholarship, a seedling ambition nurtured by the debate teacher, who last year persuaded Anthony to give the team a try.

Like many other debaters, he finds the right kind of social shelter in the activity, a place to belong in a high school of 2,250 students.

“I’m not alone in the sense that we’re a little family now,” said Anthony, who lives with his grandparents. “Debaters see each other all the time,” explained Barron Branch, Anthony’s partner at the tournament and his friend.

Students crave the belonging, but they also thrill to the world of public affairs opening before them, which they begin to see with the eyes of policymakers.

“Who would imagine so many people are starving, that there’s so much war,” said Hector Alas, a gentle-voiced senior at Miami Senior High School in Florida, who plans to debate next year as a freshman at Florida International University. He said two years on the team makes him think he has to “do something about” current events, even if that begins with informing his mother and grandmother.

Reverse Classroom Dynamic

Mary J. Thomas calls her experience coaching debate “transformative.” On her team at multiethnic Charlestown High School in Boston, she’s had students with bad attitudes, speech impediments, second-language challenges, poor grades, and top grades. To get any of them started, she hands over a binder of propositions and evidence, gives them a run-through, and coaxes them into a tournament.

“Every single child has amazed me,” the 30-year-old English teacher testified. “They suddenly become articulate, capable, mature. Part of it is the competition, but I think it’s more: It’s so difficult, it makes them feel smart.”

Debate involves “far more than I can teach, and yet the students are picking it up,” Ms. Thomas said.

They are also picking up the confidence that will allow them to succeed in colleges where their backgrounds and ethnicity stand out from the norm. “One of the hardest things to do in an environment like that … is to not feel inferior,” she said. “With debate, you know how to make people take you seriously.”

In fact, said teacher William J. Colson, who has coached the Morgan Park High team since its beginnings 11 years ago, that autonomy and purpose account for a chunk of debating’s appeal to young people. They also explain what national association officials see as the resiliency of debate programs, which are only sometimes reinforced by courses that are part of the regular curriculum, and which often depend on inexperienced coaches—some of them teachers, some volunteers from outside the schools.

“Adults don’t say anything,” Mr. Colson pointed out, “until the students have been talking for 90 minutes. Somebody’s trusting them to make their own decisions.”

Public-Private Partnership

Still, any extracurricular activity in a district struggling with underprepared students and a host of problems is likely to need support to survive over the long haul.

Andrew Hobaugh, right, talks with John Connor, in white jacket, and other team members from Chicago schools while waiting to learn the tournament winners.

The National Association for Urban Debate Leagues and the New York City-based Associated Leaders of Urban Debate, led by Will Baker, seek to provide the support and connections that will keep the movement growing. While Mr. Baker’s group helps fit debate into schools several ways, Mr. Tucker’s association has embraced a public-private-partnership model that has enabled Chicago and Baltimore to grow into powerhouse leagues with dozens of middle and high schools.

Under that model, the school district takes responsibility for a city’s league, which should have five active high schools at a minimum and coaches paid at least a modest stipend. But the district also draws on the resources of an advisory group, usually a nonprofit organization, dedicated to supporting debate in the city. The partner typically raises enough money at least to double the district’s contribution.

Among the activities debate leagues foster—beyond tournaments, which are non-negotiable—are the use of debate in regular classes and in community forums on civic issues, with students taking the lead.

The partnership model has a subsidiary but powerful benefit, said Leonard A. Gail, the chairman of the national association’s board and a former assistant U.S. attorney, corporate lawyer, and debate champion at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. It brings in a nontraditional constituency for urban education.

“There are a bunch of guys like me who believe debate was the most important thing they did, bar none, and creating an organization to give the same opportunities to less well-off kids is intoxicating,” he said. He noted that the board includes high-powered lawyers, chief executive officers, and venture capitalists, many of whom debated as students.

Back at the tournament, Cydney Edwards and Krystal Barnes, her partner from Morgan Park High, have lost their argument for the affirmative, vanquished by the team from Grady High. Grady will in turn fall to Chicago’s Lane Technical High School, which will argue a negative drawn heavily from the 19th-century philosopher Nietzsche: Suffering is part of life, which is to be embraced rather than tussled into some elusive “better.”

Not the tip-top champions, Cydney and Krystal are nonetheless wreathed in smiles after their defeat. “Every single team that got to the nationals has nothing to frown or cry about,” advises Cydney, who will attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the fall using some of the $14,000 in scholarship money distributed at the tournament. She notes: “This was a white-male-dominated sport,” with a clear emphasis on the “was.”

The two are particularly pleased that a group of teachers from Memphis, Tenn., which plans to have a program going in the next school year, watched them in an early round. “Us telling our story will allow others to do their own,” says Krystal, a junior set on debating in college.

Adds Cydney: “Debate proved to be so much more than I thought.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 16, 2008 edition of Education Week as Leagues Revive Debate in City Schools

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