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Urban Debate Teams Motivate At-Risk Students To Succeed

Ted White, far right, prepares the arguments he will make at the National Forensics League national competition. Heaven Reda, center, and James MacGlashing of Urban Science Academy also qualified for the national competition (Beenish Ahmed for WBUR)

Ted White, far right, prepares the arguments he will make at the National Forensics League national competition. Heaven Reda, center, and James MacGlashing of Urban Science Academy also qualified for the national competition. (Beenish Ahmed for WBUR)

BOSTON — Two teams from Boston Public Schools are competing this week at a national debate competition in Indianapolis. Once an activity reserved for wealthier, suburban school systems, debate leagues popping up in inner-city schools are finding the age-old activity can help at-risk students turn their lives around.

The chance to debate against some of the best teams from across the country means a lot to Ted White, a junior from New Mission High School who will compete in the National Forensic League’s national tournament — one of the most prestigious debate competitions in the country. He says his background has fueled him to work hard at what’s become his favorite activity.

Ted is only 16 years old, but he’s been through some hard times. His bright blue eyes look away as he talks about how his parents hardly managed to make ends meet until his dad got a job as a bus driver earlier this year.

“It was a struggle for me because I had to deal with them struggling to make me happy, make my siblings happy,” Ted said. “And not only that, but make sure we could actually keep stuff that we have.”

At school, Ted was the kind of kid who hardly raised his hand in class. But he joined his high school debate team, not because he wanted to, but because his sister, Gena, made him. It wasn’t exactly his idea of fun.

“It was nerve-racking and kind of boring at first,” Ted said.

But when Ted hit on the debate topic of poverty, he became engaged and has stuck with debate through this year’s topic of space exploration.

“If we do not have the space program, then we lose international cooperation,” Ted said during a recent debate practice.

He’s now totally comfortable making a case for — or against — exploring Mars. His sister Gena is too. They’re debate partners and lately, they’ve been unstoppable.

Ted sounds professorial as he sets up his arguments: “By having a space program, we actually drive economic growth because it increases inspiration for students to go study in those fields and actually increases innovation for the economy,” he said.

To make these claims, Ted will have to draw from facts he finds in dense academic articles. He’s got files full of them. It’s hard work, but to the White siblings, it’s well worth it. They recently took home first place at a district tournament. That qualified them for a national competition and got Gena shrieking.

“We found out and I started screaming,” Gena said. “I was like, ‘We’re going to Indianapolis!’ I was so excited.”

But the rewards of debating aren’t limited to trophies, says Steve Stein, head of the Boston Debate League, a nonprofit that helps public schools in Boston establish debate teams.

“Kids go from on the road to joining a gang and dropping out of high school to deciding are they going to go to law school or are they going to get their Ph.D.? That’s regular,” Stein said.

Debate has the ability to completely transform young people’s lives by its very nature, Stein says.

“In a debate round, it’s four kids speaking for 90 minutes with an adult in the back of the room listening to them. That power dynamic doesn’t happen anywhere else in an urban environment,” Stein said. “These kids are respected by adults, the adults listen to them, are interested in what they have to say, and then give them feedback on how to do it better, and kids start to have an understanding of what their potential can be.”

The validation debaters receive at tournaments flows over into their lives as students, too, says Briana Mezuk, who conducted a decade-long study of Chicago’s Urban Debate League.

“We found that debaters were 19 percent more likely to graduate from high school, relative to comparable students who did not debate,” Muzek said.

Muzek also found that Chicago debaters had higher ACT scores than similarly situated non-debaters.

But it’s not just about the numbers to Ted and Gena White.

Ted says he used to dream of being a baseball player. But after three years of debate, he’s planning on going to college and eventually becoming a lawyer.

As for Gena? She’s off to Smith College this fall.

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