By Emily Olsen
It’s late on a Friday evening, but the cafeteria at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences is packed, filled with students chatting, eating pizza and prepping for their first debate tournament of the season.
“I was nervous for the first bit, but I think it was actually a really great experience for me,” said Williams, who just completed his first round with partner Moriah Warner. He was relieved to get this first round out of the way, but ready for more.
He and Warner, both freshmen at King College Prep, are two of more than 13,000 students who have competed in the Chicago Debate League since it began in 1997. Today, they claim to be the largest urban debate league in the country.
“We want to do it every day because we want to be one of those teams that travel everywhere,” said Warner of the team that travels across the city, to the suburbs, and even San Francisco.
Debate works like this: One team presents their case to change a U.S. public policy, then their opponents argue why those changes are bad ideas, possibly providing their own plans. Each side has the chance to cross-examine their opponents and respond to each others’ ideas. Students write speeches in advance to polish their arguments and to be prepared for pushback.
Since 1997, the league has expanded from just five schools to 72, with around 1,400 students competing each year. The league runs tournaments for both high school students and middle schoolers, sometimes three separate competitions a weekend.
In a district made up mostly of minority students, many of whom are considered low-income, David Song, Chicago Debate Commission program director, said the practice allows them to form their own opinions and consider how their identity impacts their beliefs.
“It’s a chance for people who are not from privilege to get confident with saying ‘I’m as smart as or smarter than the most privileged in our city,’” Song said.
Kids don’t always recognize it, but they’re learning important skills at these tournaments, according to Edie Canter, the commission’s executive director.
“The fact is in much of the business world, in the sciences, in kind of everything you do, you’re making decisions on evidence and facts,” Canter said. “In school, you learn facts, but you don’t learn how to make decisions, you don’t learn how to analyze them, except in debate.”
Those debate skills make it back to the classroom, too. According to a study published in the Journal of Adolescence, CPS debaters were about three times more likely to graduate from high school on time.
African-American boys who debate are nearly three times less likely to drop out of high school and twice as likely to reach the college-readiness benchmark on the English section of the ACT, according to the Journal of Negro Education.
Students debate real-life policy issues, too. During this entire season, for example, they’re discussing whether the United States should increase diplomatic relations with China.
And many debate at breakneck speed, so fast the untrained ear couldn’t understand, trying to get as much information possible into their eight-minute speeches. They send around full scripts of their speeches to their competitors and judges so they can follow along.
Solorio Academy debate coach Conor Cameron said his Southwest Side students often don’t get a chance to interact with people who make those decisions on policy issues.
“Debate empowers them to advocate for themselves and understand how that system works,” Cameron said.
So why has the Chicago Debate League grown? As a teacher-led activity not coached by professionals who don’t have a school presence, it helps that CPS is involved because some debate programs don’t get any district support. Still, Canter said the league can’t rely on CPS to pay for growth. Instead, they focus on corporate and individual donors to push the program further and would love to expand the number of schools that participate, especially on the South and West sides.
“We have honestly the smartest kids you could ever hope to meet,” Song said. “They are talking about social justice issues, they are talking about politics. Our kids are talking about literally the most important things in the world.”