Students from inner cities find power at the podium

Urban debate leagues teach high schoolers to be deft communicators - and academic stars.

Some students' heroic victories happen at a lectern instead of on a sports field. They tackle with talking points and block with quick wits. They score touchdowns with eloquent persuasion.

Urban high school debate teams are defying the odds - whether they field national champions or simply transform a group of once-apathetic students into avid readers and skilled communicators. And they've been growing exponentially. In just seven years, 16 urban debate leagues have been established, bringing roughly 280 schools into a competitive realm long dominated by their better-funded suburban and private counterparts.

The momentum started with private funding for a debate league in New York's public schools from George Soros's Open Society Institute. With the spotlight on academic accountability, other districts have joined with private partners to replicate the model because of its track record of improving achievement levels and equipping at-risk students with lifelong skills.

Many urban debate coaches still labor away with few resources or accolades - sometimes taking on the extra roles of chauffeur, fundraiser, and even parent figure to students whose home lives are coming apart at the seams. But last month they were validated when a fellow coach received a "genius grant" from the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago. Tommie Lindsey won $500,000 for his work teaching forensics - which includes debate, public speaking, and dramatic interpretations of poetry and prose. In 14 years, he's expanded the forensics program at Logan High in Union City, Calif., from 15 students to well over 200, with about half a dozen competing nationally each year.

The award gives a huge boost to advocates who have been calling on school districts and philanthropists alike to support more urban forensics programs.

"This changes lives in a way that few other activities do, [but] our spending priorities are out of whack," says John Davis, director of the National High School Forensics Academy, a summer program that started this year at Howard University in Washington. "You'll have 10 different sports available, all with equipment, and we have to rent the use of the school buildings on weekends to have tournaments. The dichotomy is stark."

Marsha Sakwa sees that dichotomy every day, but she keeps writing grant proposals so she can send her burgeoning forensics team to competitions. She started with eight students 12 years ago at the Detroit High School for the Fine/Performing Arts, a public school that's nearly 100 percent African-American.

It was the only urban team in Michigan, she says, and one of the members qualified for state competition that first year, but she couldn't get enough money to send her. "I swore that would never happen again," Ms. Sakwa says.

Now the team is 42 members strong, packed with state champions who mentor younger team members. But students say it's the work, as much as the winning, that's made the biggest difference for them.

"I was kind of rough around the edges ... but Ms. Sakwa taught me complete discipline," says 11th-grader Krista McGee, speaking on a cellphone from Sakwa's classroom. Krista started in ninth grade thinking she was "the greatest actress," but competitive forensics was tough, and it gave her new respect for adults. "Now I want to go to college and I want to learn as much as I can," she says.

"Forensics has been helping me break stereotypes of African-Americans - urban children in general - playing basketball or getting quick money," says Brandon Wilkerson, a 10th-grader with a voice surprisingly deep for a 15-year-old.

"When I first started to speak my words correctly, my friends were laughing at me and I didn't get the respect that I had before.... I would try to introduce them little by little into things like literature, speaking of 'Romeo and Juliet' or other things that Ms. Sakwa taught me, and by that, they have also learned literature.... And they really do respect me now."

Other students say the team's support has enabled them to face the fears of competing against kids from wealthy schools - fears that have lessened now that they consistently take home trophies.

They can't say enough about their coach - who could be earning a lot more money in the suburbs, but instead has taken great pride in her urban brood.

"If I wasn't with Ms. Sakwa, I really wouldn't be aspiring to go to [Morehouse College]. I think I would want to stay on the streets," Brandon says.

Sakwa says every single member graduates from high school, proving that, "If you give children a voice, if you give them an opportunity, most will rise to the occasion."

Mr. Lindsey was rewarded in part for inspiring similar transformations, but schools don't have to have such heroic coaches to benefit from debate teams, says Les Lynn, executive director of the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues.

These leagues, the ones originally inspired by the New York model, promote public policy debate, which includes research on a given resolution and then rounds of 90-minute debates. Students are thrilled to have that much time to talk without adult interruption, Mr. Lynn says. "It reverses the traditional classroom hierarchy."

To test whether this kind of debate really improves academic achievement, Linda Collier, a debate coach and a professor at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, studied public schools in five cities. Debaters increased their reading scores 25 percent more than did the control group between the fall and spring of the 2002-03 school year. Debaters also showed higher levels of self-esteem and intent to attend college.

The urban debate leagues, now in 16 cities such as Atlanta and Chicago, has also produced an impressive alumni roster. Seventy-five percent of participants go on to college, compared with an average of just 18 percent in their school districts, Lynn says.

Howard University sponsored a debate academy this summer in part to create a sort of "farm team" for itself, says Professor Davis, who has been passionate about debate since his own days on a high school team in Seattle. Back then, he was the only African-American at debate meets, he says, because he was voluntarily bused to a school with a team. He's excited to see debate diversifying. "Not everybody can play football; not everybody wants to be a rapper. There's a lot of students out there who have very high ambitions and need that kind of training," he says.

Fifty students attended the two-week academy, the first at a historically black university. Many received grants and left their own city for the first time. And two of them won $5,000 scholarships to attend Howard. "When we announced the teams who made it into the quarter finals, it was like the NCAA basketball tournament," Davis says. "I've never seen that much enthusiasm from a bunch of 'nerds,' " he says with a laugh.

If forensics were to receive as much support as sports, he says, it would mean nothing short of a better future for America. "As our country starts looking more like the complexion of the world, to have leaders who are trained and smart and can think on their feet and do critical thinking ... [that's] one of the best signs for a democracy."

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