Room for Debate

One student group from a Detroit high school is making significant inroads in the art of persuasion

For many students, athletics is a typical, almost expected, extracurricular pursuit. But a charter high school debate team in Detroit is widening the playing field.

Based on their recent success at national debate tournaments, the University Preparatory High School competitors could become the first all-African-American team from Michigan to ascend to the Tournament of Champions at the University of Kentucky, considered the most elite debate competition on the national circuit. They’re also setting out to prove that debate can be as compelling as traditional sports.

“Debate here is like basketball somewhere else,” says Rayvon Dean, 17, a student at the charter school in Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood where members of the debate team are taking the art of persuasion very seriously these days.

Their practice schedule rivals those of other varsity athletes. Team members are required to meet every day during school hours, twice a week for after-school practices, and on weekends to prepare for competitions — and that’s just for starters. Landing a spot on the team isn’t easy, and Dean is quick to point out that at home, “the prep never stops.”

Even then, prospective debaters must come to the table with the right set of skills and dedication, says debate coach and U.S. history teacher Sharon Hopkins, who’s always looking for sharp, outspoken students who are capable of winning a debate.

Being on the debate team, however, has its rewards for students far beyond intense one-on-one competition. Hopkins notes that her debate students often have the highest ACT test scores among their peers. Experts say debating also improves reading comprehension and increases knowledge of current events. It can also help prepare students for the real world — where it’s crucial to be able to make a case and match wits against others. Compared with traditional learning techniques, Hopkins says debate offers something “completely different.” University Prep’s mark on the debate scene is being supported through an initiative of the Detroit Urban Debate League (UDL), a part of the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues (NAUDL), which established the academy’s debate program in 2010. Serving economically disadvantaged schools with high minority populations, the NAUDL has been instrumental in aiding black student debaters, who it says have been historically under-represented in tournaments.

One constant hurdle is the cost of sustaining debate programs. Research materials and the travel requirements are expensive, and many schools simply don’t have the cash. Holly Reiss, executive director of the Detroit UDL, says it’s “hard to make debate a priority” in a financially ailing city like Detroit.

The Detroit UDL, which has partnerships with institutions like Wayne State University and the University of Michigan, assists 15 schools in Detroit and has 15 more on their waiting list. But the organization has its limits. Although the Detroit UDL covers travel expenses for debates around Michigan, it can’t always offer enough financial assistance for schools to attend national competitions. University Prep had to raise its own money to compete on the national stage, and Hopkins even gave back her small coaching stipend to help the cause.

Reiss, who has a master’s degree in communication studies and has spent her career helping to start programs across the country, is working on grants for Detroit UDL. Until they can raise more money, however, many schools that want to participate in debate may have to stay on the waiting list, she says.

Given its limited funds and relatively little time on the debate circuit, University Prep’s accomplishments are impressive. Last September, Dean and his debate partner, Brooke Kimbrough, 16, competed at a national competition in Iowa and placed seventh out of 82 teams. Overall, Dean ranked ninth out of 162 competitors. Both Dean and Kimbrough have received debate scholarships to attend the University of Iowa.

Last October, Kimbrough and Dean also advanced at the New Trier Debate Tournament in Illinois to receive the first of two bids necessary to qualify for the Tournament of Champions. Both ranked in the event’s top 20 speakers and earned speaker awards.

The students are thrilled to be entering the wider debate culture. “Because you’re from Detroit, people expect you to fail,” Dean says. No one knows that better than University Prep’s female debaters, who must navigate a culture not just predominantly white but also predominantly male. “[Other debaters] assume that because we’re black females, we’re going to be aggressive, we’re going to have an attitude,” Kimbrough says.

Most of University Prep’s debate team members want to pursue political science or sociology in college; several have political aspirations. “I’ve actually had dreams where I was in Congress, where I was actually debating these policies that I go to these tournaments and debate about,” says Demari Miller, 15, a junior varsity debater.

For Hopkins, these recent strides at national competitions have been especially poignant. She’s been with the debate team at University Prep since it started, and she says she cried when they finally got their shot to go to the Tournament of Champions. “To me, that’s why I’m in it. That’s why I do it,” Hopkins says. “To see them grow up the way they have.”