For 15 years, one organization has improved outcomes for Baltimore youth with a surprising tool: the debate team.

One of the most persistent challenges for urban high schools is progressing kids toward graduation day. The schools in Baltimore, like in many cities in the U.S., struggle to get students out the door and into college.

While dropout rates have declined somewhat in the ast few years, Baltimore schools are still only graduating 66 percent of students within four years. For the most at-risk students, that percentage plummets to 43 percent.

A report last fall from the Baltimore City Public Schools noted that the correlation between attendance and graduation is "unequivocal." When kids show up, they tend to graduate. "We need to identify what is causing so many of our students to miss so many days of school, then work to get them to school and keep them there," said the then-interim CEO of the city's schools, Tisha Edwards.

There is, however, one group of students in Baltimore bucking this troublesome trend. For this group, not only is attendance higher, so are test scores and GPAs. These students are 3.1 times more likely to graduate than their peers, with 90 percent graduating on time and 86 percent enrolling in college. Within the most at-risk group, instead of less than half completing high school, 72 percent graduate.

Their secret? Debate.

Now in its 15th year, the Baltimore Urban Debate League (BUDL) is the largest and most successful urban debate league in the country. It is part of a broader national movement that believes that giving young people a voice and fostering their capacity to think critically can change their lives. As the statistics attest, it appears to be working.

Trinya Smith joined BUDL this year as its program director for competitive debate, but back in 2000, she was one of the program's first debaters. Smith had just moved to Baltimore from Georgia with her mother when she entered the 10th grade at Northwestern High School. "I was new and scared, and I had a funny accent and was navigating Baltimore culture," she remembers.

Trinya Smith working with students in a Baltimore school. (WhatsEatingCheff)

Her English teacher, who was the school's debate coach, encouraged Smith to join the league. At first, it was the promise of free pizza and traveling out of Baltimore to tournaments in other cities that attracted Smith, but soon she was hooked. "I was never ultra-competitive. It wasn't the mystique of the trophies, but as I got into it, that part developed," she says.

Smith was also inspired by how debate, and the rigorous research it required, shaped her and her peers. BUDL uses public policy as a debate platform, where two teams of two take the affirmative or the negative side of an argument and argue in front of a judge. Students first pick a topic from a national roster of policy issues. Then they must research that topic using sources like sophisticated policy papers.

They go through articulation drills to learn how to speak effectively, and they learn to manage time—both in how much they allot to reading and research, and how they persuade someone within the strict time limits set by the debate rules. (Devotees of The Wire may remember BUDL from the fifth season of that HBO series, when the character Namond Brice gives an award-winning speech about HIV/AIDS.)

"I was always academic," Smith explains. "My grandmother was a teacher, so it wasn't hard for me to show up and read these papers written at the collegiate level. Watching my peers who didn't have the luxury of that take a hold of it and excel even past where I could function—I think that empowered me more. It made me see the power of debate as a tool. It motivated me to want to meet that same level of passion."

Smith debated through high school and then earned a full debate scholarship to Towson University. She traveled internationally. "Debate took me around the world, and even at the top level, my partner and I were the only black females on the collegiate circuit."

Since then, Smith notes, female debaters out of Baltimore have won those international competitions. "They proved that you can break these boundaries."

Interscholastic debate leagues date back to the early 20th century, when organizations like the National Speech & Debate Association (formerly the National Forensic League) were founded. By the 1960s, these leagues were expanding to more and more schools, but inner-city schools were at a disadvantage. Without funding, many simply could not participate.

Maryland's lieutenant governor Anthony Brown (at left, with elbows
on desk) attended a speech and debate reception at Baltimore's City
College last fall. (Maryland GovPics/Flickr)  

In 1997, the Open Society Institute gave seed money to start urban debate leagues in cities including Baltimore, Chicago, St. Louis, and Tuscaloosa. Today, there are 19 cities offering leagues under the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues. Part of BUDL's success is that it offers resources beyond debate, including free SAT prep classes, academic scholarships, and an on-staff college-access counselor.

Baltimore has consistently performed at the top level of national competition. A 60 Minutes feature in 2003 profiled a young man who tested out of special education classes through the rigor and mentorship offered in BUDL. Last spring, two debaters out of Baltimore won their round in the Urban Debate National Championship Tournament and met President Obama at the White House.

Again and again, in interviews and on TV specials, the students remark how incredible it is to be heard. "For 13 minutes, everyone has to be quiet and listen to you," one remarked. Smith agrees that it's exceptionally powerful. "In high school, your teachers are constantly saying, 'Be quiet! We have to do this.' And I jump right up and say to students that [with debate] you finally get that chance to open your mouth."

The process of debate, Smith believes, changes a person's thinking. "The structure that it teaches you—from picking a topic, to researching, to writing evidence cards, to reading within a timed period, to how to get your point across quickly—it provides you with an internal guide for dealing with a problem. A lot of things that we have to do in life—find a job, get food to eat, find a place to live—[are] in essence debating."

This often leads students of debate to a new political awareness or activism. Kids begin to carry the skills of debate home with them. "They can now say, 'This is happening in my community and now I know how to articulate my position,'" Smith says. A 2007 article in The Washington Post found that Baltimore debaters were demanding asbestos removal from school buildings and that calculus classes be added to the curriculum.

In an interesting twist, some BUDL alumni have now set up their own political action group, the Leaders of the Beautiful Struggle, and a separate debate camp because they take issue with the "social service model" of debate they say BUDL promotes.

Moving forward, BUDL will continue to add special programs that encourage students to address specific challenges with their peers, such as HIV/AIDS prevention and a campaign to build awareness around Baltimore's school attendance crisis. It's all part of the bigger message: that informed, critical thinking can help change your community.

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