Kennedy High School, often considered to be one of the worst schools in the United States, is not the type of place you would expect to find a debate team. The students rank in the lowest tier on state standardized tests, and SAT scores average in the low 300s on both verbal and math. In addition, the district is so poor that more than 80 percent of the students qualify for free and reduced-price school lunches and more than half of the teachers leave each year. Yet, despite its last place finish in 1999, the Richmond, Calif. high school finished first in the Bay Area Urban Debate League in 2000, only its second year of debating.
The Bay Area Urban Debate League is part of a larger organization, the Urban Debate League, which arranges funding for teams, grants scholarships, and recruits schools in low-income areas to create debate squads. The goal of the organization is to offer low-income students the opportunity to improve verbal, research and critical-thinking skills that debating provides. The program, begun in 1985 in Atlanta, received a funding boost from George Soros’ Open Society Institute and now reaches more than 3,000 students in 100 schools across the nation.
Students believe that competing against wealthy students from private and suburban schools (the vast majority of debate teams are white and high income) is an advantage. “We do things to flaunt that we’re from Kennedy,” a student says, “…and then we beat them, and they’re, of course, shocked.”
The debate team at Kennedy High is an excellent example of individual student transformation. All members of the debate team are determined to go to college. And although most students were performing below average before joining, all have improved dramatically — becoming at least B students. Participants have also gained confidence from the support of a peer group that values academic success. “What I like best about debate is how it’s changed me,” a student says, “It used to be that when I opened the newspaper, I read the sports section and the comics. Once I got into debate, I started to look at the front page, and this year I actually start by reading the editorials.”
The strains on the Urban Debate League are many. For one thing, grants from Soros’ Open Society only last three years, after which teams must find their own funding. In addition, the debate season is nine months long, which requires a high level of commitment from both the team coach and the students. However, Eddie Wexler, the coach of the Kennedy High team, says the results are worth the effort: “Urban debate is transformative in an individual sense. It directly changes the lives of kids in a way that the big, sweeping school reforms do not. My kids’ analytical skills have taken off. And some of the most shy, timid kids have been emboldened in the most positive way. Debate has helped my kids find their voices.”
|Student Finds Her Voice in Debate
Patricia Smith arrived at Kennedy High School when her family moved from Oakland due to “family difficulties.” Because she moved mid-year, she had to attend Kennedy; no other school had openings. Yet despite an admitted distaste for the school, Smith has managed to prosper, in large part due to her involvement with the debate team. Patricia has turned into a straight-A student since joining the team, and has gained experience in speaking to a crowd, presenting proposals and using debate for self-expression. Missing only one competition because she was taking the SAT, Patricia is now in the running for valedictorian with a grade-point average above 4.0. She plans to apply to top-tier colleges where she will either study law or public relations.
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