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Program aims to turn kids' talk into debate

Susan Notes: What an idea. Take the kids who are a pain in the neck and offer them participation in an interesting project.

Class clowns. Schoolyard bullies. The kids who know how to hijack a lesson and leave a substitute in tears.

They will form the core of Miami-Dade's new public high school debate league.

''They're the ones who get kicked out of class because they can't stop talking,'' said Amber Block, who will coach the team at North Miami Beach Senior High, one of 13 schools to inaugurate the program this fall. ``School doesn't interest them, but competition gets them excited.''

Similar programs in Atlanta, Baltimore and New York City have been smash successes with at-risk students; organizers said 90 percent earn high-school diplomas and 75 percent go on to graduate college.

''Without this program, a lot of those kids won't even make it out of high school,'' said Natilee Brown-Van, who will coach the team at Carol City Senior High. ``With it, at least college -- at least. At a minimum.''

About 100 universities offer scholarships and recruit students at urban debate tournaments -- a vital feature for a program that targets primarily high-poverty schools.

''Survival in their communities doesn't include going to college,'' said Edward Lee, a college debate coach who was one of the first graduates of the first league in Atlanta in the mid-1980s. ``I would have found a job somewhere, but not something as rewarding as I'm doing now, and I would not have ended up doing anything giving back to my community, as I'm doing now.''


Miami-Dade will be the 18th district -- and the only one in Florida -- to launch an urban debate league, and it has the most ambitious start-up plan since Emory University started developing the program for Atlanta's inner-city schools 20 years ago.

At each of the 12 Miami-Dade high schools in the league, teachers will recruit as many as a dozen students -- few, if any, of them will know anything about debate -- who will start monthly tournaments on Miami Dade College campuses as soon as September.

The 13th school, Charles Drew Middle in Liberty City, will be a pilot for a middle-school league that will expand the following year.

A group of Drew students has been mentored for years and promised college scholarships through the ''I Have A Dream'' program, which also sent them to Emory last week to learn debate and watch experienced students.

''They were doing rebuttals, cross-examinations -- they're just having a ball,'' said Dorothy Perrin, the retired Drew administrator who traveled with the students to Atlanta.

No other city has tried starting middle- and senior-high leagues at the same time, said Melissa Wade, the head of Emory's debate program and a director of the National Debate Project.


''Our idea is to grab them in the sixth grade, get them interested, keep them out of gangs, teach them critical thinking,'' Wade said. ``They start watching the news and reading the paper and keeping up with current events.''

Research skills are critical for urban debate, which focuses on a single, complex national issue every year: the USA Patriot Act, mental health funding, federal education policy.

Debates are judged, in part, by how many facts the students can cram into their arguments.

That also forces students, many of whom enter the league with marginal literacy, to read, understand and repeat complicated concepts and high-level vocabulary.

''They want to win, so they'll make sure they know every word,'' Block said.


Indeed, competition appears to be one of the keys to urban debate's success.

A mark on a report card may be weak motivation compared to applause, trophies and admiration.

In Baltimore, whose league was featured two years ago on CBS' 60 Minutes, the top team from a local prep school said its toughest competition was one of the high-poverty urban debate league teams.

''The first time a kid from Miami Northwestern beats a kid from Palmetto . . . you can't buy that kind of self-esteem in a store,'' Wade said. ``They're not supposed to even know those kids.''

Debate also gives the spotlight to students who may have spent their lives in anonymous waves -- their partners, opponents and judges are forced to listen to them.

''They can get up and have everyone's attention in the room instead of competing with 20 other students in a class or siblings at home,'' Block said.

To launch in Miami-Dade, private donors have covered the $30,000 start-up costs, mostly to send 17 rookie debate coaches to a two-week boot camp on Emory's Atlanta campus. But the league's first year is expected to cost $275,000.

''This is a program that allows anybody who wants to do it, regardless of whether they can afford it, to do it,'' said Barbara Garrett, the league's champion in Miami-Dade, who is raising the money and directing the launch.

Her husband was Wade's college debate partner at Emory, and she saw the 60 Minutes piece about Baltimore's league during the a team reunion in February.

She was smitten.

''I looked at [Wade] and said, `We can do this,''' Garrett said.

''It wasn't supposed to kick off until next year, but they were so excited about the program they pushed me to do it now,'' she said.

A team of consultants from the National Debate Project will visit almost every week in August to train the first group of students, then return monthly to oversee the tournaments.


The district will fund only a single debate coach at each high school, a few of which already have different debate programs.

So Garrett also needs to raise money to pay stipends for the new league's coaches.

Organizers were eager to host the tournaments on college campuses.

''Kids who never would have been on a college or university campus show up and see kids who look like them,'' Garrett said. ``They realize this isn't just for somebody else.''

The charter members in Miami-Dade will be recruited quickly after school begins in early August -- some have already been targeted.

Block has reached out to one rising senior, who rarely spoke in class last year and earned poor grades, ``not out of lack of intelligence, just lack of attention.''

She saw a spark in him during a classroom discussion about the ``typical aspirations of a black male in an urban setting, wanting to become a rapper or a basketball player.''

''All of a sudden he became so passionate about how frustrating that is, and I had never heard him speak like that before,'' Block said.

``He reminded me of a preacher with that ability to grab attention.''

He had never heard of debate before Block called him this summer, but immediately volunteered for the team.

''He was just so flattered,'' she said. ``He said he's never had a teacher ask him to do something like that before.''


— Matthew I. Pinzur
Miami Herald


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