Teen debaters take on tough city issues

Some of the arguments were sloppy, with emotions spilling out in place of facts. Other opinions in a recent round of budget debates in New York City were tidily constructed and well-informed. Occasionally, the debaters tried to shout over one another, and the audience regularly laughed and cheered at the verbal confrontations.

These feisty citizens all found at least one thing in common, though – they are students in New York's public high schools. Two hundred and fifty squeezed into their seats in a midtown auditorium one rainy morning to watch as 24 students from their ranks formally debated questions about proposed cuts and spending.

"This is a chance for students to learn the power and persuasion of debate versus cynicism or protest," said Gail Nayowith, executive director of the Citizens' Committee for Children, a nonprofit group in New York that for four years has organized the Great Kids Budget Debate. "To watch them makes you feel optimistic about the future."

The students jousted verbally over questions such as whether the city should raise the tax on cigarettes and what should be done with the site where the World Trade Center once stood. Their arguments required a grasp of subjects ranging from municipal bonds to the city school system.

At the end of each of the six four-person debates, the audience voted on the question via hand-held tabulators.

Some of the debaters – who hailed from both prestigious and challenged schools – admitted that their preparation had been minimal. Others, however, said they spent at least a couple of weeks getting ready.

But to many of their listeners, both the activity level and the passion on display were appealing.

"It makes me feel like I want to join the debate team," said Ernest Hudson, a ninth-grader from Wings Academy in the Bronx. "It's kind of amusing to see the way [the debaters] talk and act. And I learned some things. I didn't know [the city] was taking so much money away from the homeless."

Many of the students in the audience were already members of their school debate teams. The debaters from Franklin Lane High School in Queens, two of whom participated on stage, told the heartening tale of the team's success. Although test scores mark the overcrowded high school (3,200 students) as one of the worst in the city, this year both its junior varsity and varsity debate teams made it to national competitions.

"The kids see the benefit of the experience and put lots of time in to practice," said Cathy Lafergola, their coach and an English teacher. "As a result, they've earned scholarships, travel, and some new intellectual skills."

But some of the debaters insisted that the event exercises the emotions as much as the intellect.

"Arguing and debating are second nature to me," said Andrea Clarke, a sophomore from Freedom Academy in Brooklyn who hopes someday to be either a judge or a professor. Andrea's arguments about whether real-estate developers should be required to include public amenities in new projects were so heatedthat the audience showed some displeasure, and a few students even criticized her when it was all over.

"I'm disappointed about that," she said ruefully. "I just really wanted them to hear what I had to say."

"We should have gotten more votes," fretted Gary Scott, a junior from Franklin Lane who argued in opposition to proposed cuts in city services and was saddened when the audience split 50-50 over the proposition. "Things like homelessness, some things you feel so strongly, it almost causes your heart to skip a beat."

But the debate process itself is great, says Gary, who wants a career in international business. "It gives us a voice, makes us more aware."

Throughout the course of the day's debates, the audience was also asked to respond to multiple-choice questions intended to reveal teen attitudes on political and social topics.

They indicated repeatedly that the city should be spending more on their schools. But some of the specific questions provided insight into where the spending gaps might lie.

Seventy-two percent of students, for instance, said they thought advanced-placement classes were a good opportunity to prepare for college, but only 46 percent said their schools offered such classes.

Other responses spoke to issues far more personal than spending priorities. Thirty-eight percent said they never felt valued by the adults in their community. Seventy-four percent said they would never consider becoming a New York City schoolteacher, and 71 percent said the same about a career on the city's police force.

When it came to the overall quality of life for teens in New York, the group split down the middle, with 50 percent rating it excellent or good and the other half calling it not so good or poor.

For some, just the chance to debate was worthwhile. "It helps me prepare for the real world, to meet other people," said Amanda Mulero, her face framed by a swirl of waist-length brown hair. A junior on the Wings Academy team, she drew much applause while passionately debating a proposed city tobacco tax. "And it keeps me out of trouble."

• E-mail marjorie@csmonitor.com

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