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A Place at the Podium: Debate Drives Success in Inner-City Schools

MNUDL debaters at the National WWII Monument in Washington, DC last year
MNUDL debaters at the National WWII Monument in Washington, DC last year
The small group of inner city kids had made it all the way from the Twin Cities to Washington D.C. last April, and they were ready to compete in their first National Urban Debate League tournament. But first, they had a chance to go to Capitol Hill and meet staff from the offices of Senators Klobuchar and Franken. After the handshakes and photo ops, one of the staffers turned to the group and asked, “What do you like about debate?

Dai’quan was the first one to raise his hand. “Before I joined Urban Debate League, you couldn’t catch me even holding a book in my hand. Now, I have a favorite philosopher,” he said.

That sort of transformation--from book avoider to connoisseur of the finer points of difference between Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein--is one that Amy Cram Helwich has observed many times in her four years as Executive Director of Minnesota’s Urban Debate League (MNUDL). A former debater herself, she believes that a passion for debate can gives kids a reason to learn, compete--and succeed.

“One of my favorite success stories is Brittany Williams, now age 21, who participated in MNUDL at North High School in Minneapolis. She had a very challenging home life--she was estranged from her parents and was homeless during her senior year. Through all that, she persevered with debate, and she and her partner qualified for the state tournament. It was the first time a team from North had qualified in 53 years. Brittany is a student at the University of Minnesota now, and is a debate coach for MNUDL at Como Park High School. So many kids really look up to her--she is just an incredible role model,” says Helwich.

A Place at the Podium

Brittany’s story is indicative of recent changes in the world of debate, an activity that historically was the domain of young white men who planned to become lawyers. When city school budgets began to shrink in the 1970s, debate teams were often one of the first programs to be cut. In fact, until MNUDL returned to the school, there had not been a debate team at North High School since the 1950s. While private and suburban schools often have well-funded debate programs, urban and rural schools have increasingly been left out.

The genesis of the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues, which currently has about 20 chapters in operation, goes back more than twenty years, starting with support from George Soros’ Open Society Foundations. The local chapter was begun in 2004 by Karon Garen, whose four sons, graduates of The Blake School, had all been state and national debate champions. Garen wanted to make debate competition possible for a wider audience, and was interested in helping inner-city kids find a place at the podium. She teamed up with several former debaters, now attorneys, and started a state chapter.

There are currently 500 participating debaters from 22 high schools and middle schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Sixty-five percent of the debaters are students of color, and 75 percent are low income.

The local chapter operates as a program Augsburg College, which provides office space, technology and guidance. Augsburg also offers a four-year scholarship to students who participate in MNUDL for three years, maintain at least a 3.25 GPA, receive at least a 21 on the ACT and are Pell Grant eligible. “Six of our seniors are applying for the scholarship this year,” Helwich says.

MNDUL debaters are becoming increasingly competitive at the local, state and even national levels, with two teams placing in the top eight and top 16 in the nation at last season's National Association for Urban Debate Leagues National Championship.

A “Hook” for Success

Helwich believes that debate is often the “hook” that provides kids with a reason not only to stay in school, but to thrive academically, often for the first time in their school careers. As part of competition preparation, they must research, analyze and learn to defend and disagree with an author’s arguments. Those critical thinking skills, she says, are transferrable to the classroom and to life. “They’re learning to study all sides of a problem, and learning to see things from another’s perspective. That’s an important skill that we could all use a little more of,” she adds.

And while the city debaters are winning more competitions, they are also achieving something significant on an academic level. “After one year in debate, students on average increase their reading comprehension three grade levels. The high school students on our core team have 100 percent on-time high school graduation, with a college acceptance rate of 99 percent,” she reports, adding that, in the Twin Cities, debaters are 40 percent more likely to graduate from high school than non-debaters.

Although some may view debate as the ultimate wonk-fest, many advocates insist that it’s very similar to sports in its discipline, practice, rigor and competitive nature--just not as well-funded or supported by school communities. There is still a team captain and team camaraderie, and debaters must face the physical demands of late nights, early mornings, twice-a-week practices and attendance at weekend competitions. “The only difference,” says Helwich, “is that the sports we are doing are in the mind.”

A New Partnership

The group was recently selected as one of five investees by Social Venture Partners Minnesota (SVP MN), which invests partners’ charitable dollars, time, and expertise in entrepreneurs who create better ways to solve complex problems. Mark Raderstorf is a member of SVP MN, and he’s serving as a co-lead advisor for MNUDL.

“When they applied to us for grant funding, I was so impressed by their outcomes,” he says. “I’ve had three kids go through Minneapolis Public Schools, and it often seems like sports is the only way for kids to lock into a school community. This gives kids another choice, and one that really strengthens their academics,” he says. “As a psychologist, I’ve got to believe that debate is such a boost to kids’ self-confidence, social skills, and ability to interact with the public. They aren’t going out to hit one another or score a point, but they are engaging intelligently and respectfully with someone on the other side during a debate.”

‘I’m not a former debater, but I regret that I didn’t join a team in high school, now that I’ve seen these kids in action,” he adds.

And Emily Puetz, Chief Academic Officer of the Minneapolis Public Schools, joins in endorsing debate in no uncertain terms. "Few tools have endured the test of time the way that debate has," she says, "and today students engage in debate to learn skills that will last a lifetime: effective public speaking, forming and articulating a persuasive argument, and understanding different perspectives.  Debate is an exciting endeavor that will support your life path regardless of what direction it takes.    

"We are proud of our debate scholars at MPS!  The district supports this program and is working to solidify funds to ensure all middle and high school students have access beginning next year."

What’s Next

“I have 10 schools on the waiting list wanting to join, mostly middle schools. There are still three high schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul that we haven’t covered yet, so there is no MNUDL representation at Johnson and Harding in St. Paul, or at Southwest in Minneapolis,” says Helwich, who reports that the focus of the organization now is to “find resources so we can continue to grow.”

“It costs us $5,000 a year to run a middle school team, and our costs for a high school team are $10,000, including bus travel for in-town tournaments,” she says. While the NAUDL competition in Washington, D.C. pays for travel expenses, Helwich hopes to raise enough funds to cover travel costs for the three MNUDL teams that have qualified to compete in the National Forensics League tournament this year in Birmingham, Alabama. For that competition, teams must pay their own travel costs. “We are trying to figure out how to make it financially possible for six students and their coaches to attend,” Helwich says.

To help with this and other funding needs, there will be a fundraising breakfast event May 9 at Augsburg College, hosted by Mayor Rybak of Minneapolis, Mayor Coleman of St. Paul, and Transportation Commissioner Charles Zelle. Online registration for the fundraiser can be found here. The event will feature--what else?--a student debate on this year’s national high school policy debate topic: “Resolved: The United States Federal Government should substantially increase its transportation infrastructure investment.” It should be a high-powered morning, and a good chance for our local leaders to hear just how passionate and articulate these young thinkers and speakers can be.

Julie Kendrick's last article for The Line was a portrait of the tutoring service Rock Star Supply Company, in our February 13, 2013 issue.

First two photos courtesy Minnesota Urban Debate League; others by Bill Kelley



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