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Release date: November 2000
Contact: Deb Hammacher, Assistant Director, 404-727-0644, or

Competitive Debate Making An Impact and a Comeback In Inner City Schools Nationwide Based On Emory/Atlanta Model

Thousands of inner city students are flocking to competitive debate programs modeled after the Atlanta Urban Debate League founded by Emory University more than a decade ago. Thanks to urban debate leagues (UDLs) begun in the last three years, students in Detroit, New York City, Chicago, Tuscaloosa, Kansas City, St. Louis, Baltimore and the San Francisco Bay area are reaping the profound benefits of debate training: increased verbal, analytical, research and critical thinking skills; greater confidence; higher grades; less physical violence and offers of college scholarships.

Due to expensive entry fees and access to research materials needed, competition debate has long been a tool for affluent, white male students to hone their speaking and academic skills, but the newcomers are far from the traditional audience: These students are likely to be nonwhite, low-income and female.

Melissa Maxcy Wade, director of forensics at Emory and founder of the Atlanta UDL, is a mentor to several of the new programs. She predicted that during the New York league's first year, urban debate league students would beat students from long-established programs at Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School at least once. She was right.

"The self-esteem these kids get beating an established program is priceless," says Wade. "That's not something you can buy in a store."

The Atlanta program began as a partnership between Emory's debate team—known as the Barkley Forum—the Atlanta Public Schools and Decatur City (Ga.) Schools. There are more than 2,000 students across the country participating in urban debate leagues built on the Barkley Forum's model.

The cultural education that debaters from both sides of the socio-economic spectrum is another of the intangible benefits. Particularly at the numerous summer debate camps, students from diverse backgrounds are brought together to work as teams. This cooperation enables them to become friends around a common task and gain respect for one another. "We believe that the learning across the socioeconomic divide has been mutual," says Wade. The suburban kids and inner city students learn that their preconceived notions about each other are usually completely wrong.

One of the greatest successes, however, is more tangible than the skills students gain. Urban debate league participants are drawing the attention of college recruiters and debate coaches. Emory alumna Shanara Reid, a participant in Atlanta's UDL, was offered more than $2 million in college debate scholarships when she graduated from high school. Kenya Hansford, a second-year Columbia Law School student, is a UDL graduate working with the New York league. She also was offered extraordinary college scholarships and had her pick of law schools thanks to her debate training. The debate coach at Franklin K. Lane High School in Queens, N.Y. says she has college coaches asking which of her debaters is graduating each year.

Edward Lee is another success story. He credits his Atlanta UDL experience with teaching him to reject his peers' dangerous rites of passage—drinking, drugs and prison. He now is a graduate student at the University of Alabama and co-director of the Tuscaloosa UDL.

To learn more about urban debate leagues around the country, go on-line to:

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