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Lessons from Stoneman Douglas: How debate education drives activism and achievement

FINDING THEIR VOICES—Students from the New Haven Urban Debate League in Connecticut are among those across the nation who have been learning the speaking and presentation skills necessary for productive public engagement.
FINDING THEIR VOICES—Students from the New Haven Urban Debate League in Connecticut are among those across the nation who have been learning the speaking and presentation skills necessary for productive public engagement.

Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida, made headlines for their articulate arguments for gun control after a February shooting at their school left 17 dead.

Their eloquence and activism did not come as a surprise to district leaders: Broward County Public Schools operates a systemwide debate program in more than two dozen elementary schools and every middle and high school. The district also offers journalism, drama and other arts programs.

Public engagement programs such as debate and forensics instill students with confidence, says Mark Ingerson, a teacher and forensics team coach at Salem High School, part of Salem City Schools in Virginia. They also teach research, analysis and active listening skills.

“These kids have been trained in public speaking under pressure,” Ingerson says. “Suddenly, they’re speaking in front of news cameras, and they do it like it’s nothing.”

The Salem High School team has won 13 consecutive annual Virginia debate championships, and students have gone on to public-facing roles in politics and nonprofits.

Being a debate team captain improved a college applicant’s chance of admission to the University of Pennsylvania by more than 60 percent, according to a widely cited 1999 Wall Street Journal analysis.

And a 2017 study from debate education provider Millennial Speech & Debate found that of graduating seniors whose debate teams reached the finals at three national competitions, 79 percent went on to attend colleges ranked in the top 75 by U.S. News & World Report.

Many districts have cut debate programs in recent years. Still, a number of schools nationwide are committed to teaching skills coaches say will last a lifetime, including how to maintain eye contact and ask meaningful questions.

“Creating an environment where students have a voice but also understand the logistics and chain of command of society, of their school, of their community, is important,” says Tara Grieb, principal of Stissing Mountain Junior/Senior High School in Pine Plains, New York, which offers forensics, mock trial, key club and model UN programs.

The equity issue

Public engagement programs tend to be more common in private schools and wealthier public schools. To fill some funding gaps, the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues operates 22 programs in 629 urban public schools, reaching 10,878 students.

The New Haven Urban Debate League in Connecticut is operated by Yale University undergraduates, who send coaches to 150 students in a dozen schools each week to teach public speaking and current events.

“Most of these students wouldn’t have the opportunity to compete in debate and learn these types of skills without the Urban Debate League, because their schools don’t offer these programs,” says Eric Foster, co-president of the New Haven organization.

Getting started

District administrators who want to add debate or journalism to their schools should treat it like a sports team, Ingerson says. Even more than funding, these programs require a dedicated teacher or coach—which can be difficult to find, he adds. Schools can look to local public speaking organizations, such as Toastmasters, to find partners and resources.

Administrators should also attend events to support the students, the same way as with athletic games, Ingerson says.

“Broward County has some of the best debate programs in the nation, and that empowered these students to speak out on the issues they care about,” says Foster. “Regardless of where these students are from, we want them to be able to forcefully speak out on their views.”