Justin Leonard, Terrell Dukes and Tricia Roboteau may look like your typical laid-back high schoolers, but ask these skilled debaters about subsidizing poverty or increasing alternative energy and you’re likely to get more than an earful.
The Atlanta Public School students are among thousands of children across the nation participating in after school Urban Debate programs this year, which use non-traditional methods to teach students from inner cities the competitive art of debate.
“When I joined debate my vocabulary got bigger. I was able to read faster and it helps me in my language arts and social studies classes,” said Leonard, a sophomore at Atlanta’s Frederick Douglass High School. “People tend to underestimate students from our school, but we’re able to show them that we’re better through debates. It teaches you that there are no excuses and that no matter where you come from, you can still succeed in life.”
Atlanta’s Computer Assisted Debate program (CAD), established in 2004, specifically reaches out to youth in public housing communities where gangs are prevalent, said Carol Winkler, associate dean of humanities at Georgia State University and cofounder of the program. CAD uses incentive based learning, life skill training and computer-based research to supplement materials available in school libraries and communities.
Trainers from Georgia State and Emory University help prepare students to debate against other schools, which takes both research and strategy. Students learn through non-traditional debate methods, such as trivia-style and role-playing games, but also spend hours mulling over hundreds of pages of high-level research about issues, such as alternative energy and whether the United States should subsidize poverty.
“The goal is to get to the youth before the gangs get to them,” Winkler said. “The students who are most likely to drop out are going to be poor, minorities, or students who are in some way behind their peers on academic issues. Our goal with the program was to go in and increase the engagement of those students: Engaging them effectively in their relationships with their peers and mentors; cognitively by increasing their grades and reading scores; and behaviorally by having them attend school more and by decreased disciplinary problems.”
Shavarious Render, a senior at Frederick Douglass High School, says he used to skip class and get into fights.
“Now I want to be a lawyer,” he said. “Debate has taught me different ways to solve problems and to control my anger management issues.”
Researchers from Georgia State say students can jump two grade levels in reading after joining the Urban Debate Project. Georgia State recently released results from a three year study of the Urban Debate Project in Milwaukee, the first study that followed a debate league since inception, Winkler said.
Roughly 45 percent of the students who were tested were reading below grade level when they entered the league, Winkler said. These below-grade readers showed an average increase of 1.9 grade-levels in reading rate, 1.8 in reading fluency, 1.8 in comprehension and 1.2 in accuracy over the course of a single year of program participation.
“The statistics are ridiculous. It’s just good,” Winkler said.
When 17-year-old Miloran Robinson started school at GSU this fall, she said she wouldn’t be here if not for Milwaukee’s Urban Debate Project.
“Debate keeps you focused and it keeps you knowing what’s going on in the world, which makes you more of an informed citizen,” said Robinson, who plans to study nursing and women’s studies.
The students are not only good arguers, but debate also builds confidence and encourages civic engagement, said Joel Lemuel, a 24-year-old Georgia State master’s student, who is a product of the program and now works as a research associate and debate coach.
“Advocacy, more than anything else, can change a person’s life. It gives them the tools they need to change their world and to not just be kind of passive citizens, but to act like agents that have control over their lives,” he said.
Lemuel, who is touted as one of the most successful debaters in the history of Atlanta’s Urban Debate League, remembers joining the program as a freshman at Grady High School.
“My family was kind of poor and we didn’t really didn’t have the opportunities to travel, so debate not only got me outside of my community, but it got me thinking outside my immediate context,” Lemuel said.
Atlanta’s Computer Assisted Debate program has a number of community partners, including Atlanta Public Schools, the Atlanta Housing Authority, Project Safe Neighborhoods and the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust. The program, which has been nationally recognized through the White House’s Helping America’s Youth Initiative and the Department of Justice’s nationwide program to reduce gun crime in America, has already been replicated in Milwaukee and Miami, Fla. This year Winkler will be doing training in Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth and Knoxville, Tenn., as well as showcasing the program as best practices in the U.S. Dept. of Justice’s Project Safe Neighborhood program at a national conference of attorneys entitled “Addressing Violent Crime in the 21st Century.”
“The nation is really in crisis about trying to figure out how to handle the drop out problem that is going on. In many places there are schools and school districts that are in trouble because they have not met the goals for No Child Left Behind,” Winkler said. “This kind of a program basically provides a means by which they can make ground up very quickly.”