The Sturm College of Law helps Denver high-schoolers see both sides of the story.
Outside the Denver Center for International Studies on a sunny March afternoon, spring is in full bloom. The surrounding neighborhood basks in the tranquility, with little more than a few chirping birds disturbing the peaceful reverie.
Inside the school, however, a fury of focused conflict and passionate persuasion reigns.
From one end of the cafeteria to the other — and, later, in classrooms that otherwise would have been silently hibernating on this fine Saturday afternoon — argumentative rhetoric echoes off every wall.
And in the case of these particular teenage students, their arguments expand throughout the universe.
One student seizes control of the podium and begins to argue that it is in the best interest of the United States government to funnel as much money and as many resources as possible into space exploration. A challenger takes the spotlight to refute that notion, explaining how such resources could be better used in other, more productive ventures.
Yet another student notes how the wonders of the galaxy might eventually unlock the keys to such mysteries as the cure for cancer, only to have that viewpoint shot down with the piercing reality that in this day and age, such frivolous spending is grossly irresponsible.
Neither side is ever right.
Conversely, neither side is ever wrong.
Inside this forum it is the spirit of the debates that serves as the most important aspect of the proceedings.
This is the Denver Urban Debate League.
Formed in 2008 as the local chapter of the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues, the Denver Urban Debate League (DUDL) entered into a formal partnership with the University of Denver Sturm College of Law last year, expanding the reach and capabilities of an organization that brings a competitive, intellectually challenging outlet to Denver Public Schools students who had never previously enjoyed such options.
“You really have an opportunity to get to know students in a different way outside of the classroom setting,” says Jessica Clark, the Denver league’s executive director. “You’re watching them engage in some pretty deep issues. This year, they’re debating whether the United States government should significantly increase space exploration. They really are engaging in ways — and becoming advocates in ways — that they wouldn’t necessarily have in the classroom. We’ve had students in the program who are now juniors at NYU or sophomores at DU who are all excelling, and that is wonderful to see.”
The genesis of the DUDL happened when Roberto Corrada, the Sturm College’s Chair in Modern Learning, attended a seminar where one of the featured speakers was the founder of the Chicago chapter of the Urban Debate League. A former collegiate debater at George Washington University, Corrada immediately envisioned a similar program thriving in Denver, and he set to the task of making that dream a reality.
Two of Corrada’s first phone calls were to Rico Munn and Casie Collignon, both decorated alums of the Sturm College of Law. The trio formed part of the founding board of directors for the DUDL and have remained instrumental in the organization’s rapid growth.
“I talked to Rico and Casie very early on, and we started talking about how to do it and how to set it up,” Corrada says. “But it wasn’t until the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues decided they wanted to pay attention to new cities that they came out and talked to us. They had a model and we started to set that up.”
Corrada’s experience in debate gives him insight into the myriad benefits a debate league can bestow upon a student. Not only are there the obvious intellectual challenges, but competing in a debate arena often helps hone other academic and social skills.
“Anyone will tell you practicing public speaking only builds confidence, and that translates to a lot of different things,” Corrada says. “But it’s also the inherent confidence that they can learn things that they didn’t take part in before. And they can do it fairly quickly. In a debate round, you have very limited time to understand and grasp and respond to very complex things. And that’s very daunting when you start. But then after you do it a couple times, you realize, ‘I can do this. And so there’s no reason I can’t do this in other aspects of my life.’”
The official partnership between the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues and the Sturm College of Law has paid off for the law school and for participating high school debaters. DU law students often serve as volunteer mentors and debate tournament officials, providing them with practical experience while also fulfilling a portion of their community-service curriculum. The high school students, meanwhile, learn from enthusiastic role models.
The DUDL already has made local headlines — two standout sibling debate students, Teague and Theron Harrison, from Denver’s Manual High School, were featured in a March 2011 cover story in Westword — and the numbers clearly reveal the ongoing success of the partnership with DU.
During the 2009–10 school year, the DUDL boasted a total of 68 students from seven schools. Those 68 students competed in 926 tournament rounds. One year later, with only one more school in the fold, 137 students participated in a total of 2,301 tournament rounds.
That’s a 101 percent increase in the number of participating students and a whopping 148 percent increase in the number of tournament rounds in which they competed. More important, the graduation rate for DUDL students during the 2009–10 and 2010–11 seasons was a perfect 100 percent. That’s no small feat, considering the overall graduation rate reported by Denver Public Schools for 2010–11 stood at 56.1 percent.
“I was a debater, and the reality for me was that I traveled around the country, both in high school and college, and spent years where I never saw anybody at the debates who looked like me,” says Munn, a Colorado native of African-American descent. “Now I go to these tournaments, and all these kids — it’s a very diverse group. It’s very personally rewarding for me to see that. But also, for these kids, they’re having success in an area where traditionally kids that look like them have not been successful. They get that. They recognize that nobody would expect them to understand and know how the aerospace industry works, but they can sing it chapter and verse after going through that particular topic for a year. For me, that’s a globally rewarding thing.”
The students routinely echo Munn’s sentiment, and most say they are grateful for the opportunity. The typical DUDL student does not participate in varsity athletics, and debaters generally are extremely bright students who have not discovered their niche in the classroom. Through debate, those students find inspiration, motivation and an outlet for intellects that may otherwise have remained neglected.
“To quote a coach of mine, he said he’d been debating all his life, but he wasn’t on the debate team officially until high school,” says Selene Figueroa, a student with the Martin Luther King debate team. “During my eighth-grade year, my teachers recommended I go watch the state championships, which was the Denver Urban Debate League’s first year. At first I thought, ‘Debate’s nerdy. Whatever.’ But then I listened to it, and it was actually really cool. They were talking about relevant things.
“I come from a theater background, so I love having people listen to me,” she continues. “I’m not the tallest, or usually the best. But in a debate round you have to stand in front of a judge who has to listen to you to make their decision. I love that challenge.”
Those challenges continue to inspire DUDL alums currently working toward their college degrees. DU sophomore Reuben Aguirre, an international studies major who competed in the DUDL at Denver West High School, readily admits that his desire to earn a degree hails largely from his experience in the debate league.
“Up until that time, I hadn’t been a straight-A student at all,” Aguirre says. “It seemed like it was very empowering for the students that participated in it. It seemed like the sort of organization I wanted to be involved with.
“Before that, I wasn’t too concerned about life after high school,” he continues. “I never considered myself a dumb kid, but I never did well in school because nothing held my attention. Debate was a different way of learning. In my two years of debate, I probably learned more than I had in classrooms up to that point.”
The DUDL sponsored six tournaments this year, culminating in a city championship in mid-March that was won individually by Manual’s Harrison siblings and by the Denver Center for International Studies in the team sweepstakes. This year’s topic centered on the following premise: The United States federal government should substantially increase its exploration and/or development of space beyond the Earth’s mesosphere.
For those wondering what exactly constitutes the mesosphere, fear not. These teenagers were all over it. Throughout the course of a season, each set of debaters is required to argue both the positive and the negative aspects of a particular viewpoint. While that clearly presents a monumental challenge, becoming an expert on such a topic can be just as challenging to the coaches.
“I’ve learned probably more than the students have,” says Wauneta Vann, the debate coach at Thomas Jefferson High School. “First of all, there are the topics. You have to stay ahead of the game. That first year, [DUDL Executive Director] Jessica Clark … bless her heart, I would call her nonstop. It would be the middle of practice and I would call her saying, ‘They’re asking me this and I don’t know the answer!’ Then I actually went to a coaches’ camp, and that’s what really made a difference for me. I’m constantly doing research and trying to learn, reading more. These guys pick up on things so fast and before you know it, I’m playing catch-up. I’ve definitely learned a lot.”
Given the rapid success of the DUDL — the league added three schools this season — the organization expects to enjoy further expansion in the near future. It already boasts novice and varsity divisions, and increased numbers in the future could lead to an intermediary junior varsity division as well.
In fall 2011, the National Organization of Urban Debate Leagues issued a directive detailing its intent to triple its membership. Corrada foresees a day in the not-so-distant future when factions of the DUDL will be in middle schools, allowing students to begin debating sooner and, in turn, be far more proficient by the time they are seniors in high school.
“A lot of guys like me, who are former debaters, come and judge,” Corrada said. “We even have a former Federal District Court judge who’s a former debater who comes and judges. If we branch out, if we increase our membership by two- or threefold and go into middle schools, we will have to figure out where we can get folks to judge. But at DU, for example, the law school now allows law students to work with these debate teams and get public service credits. That’s been very helpful. Each year we’ve seen a growth in the number of law students who are helping these kids. Which is great. That’s win-win.”
Win-win. That’s a benefit no debater could ever refute.
Watch video of the Denver Urban League Debate.