Today I’m going to do something virtually unheard of in today’s discussions about public schools.
I’m going to talk about what’s going right. And the amazing things that can happen when the right people get together.
It started with an unsettling discovery by Tara Tedrow.
At the end of 2012, Tedrow was fresh out of law school and a few months into her job at Lowndes, Drosdick, Doster, Kantor & Reed.
The three-time national debate champion from Celebration High School was stunned to learn that Celebration and many other local high schools no longer had debate teams.
For her that was like a star quarterback coming home to find out the high school football field had been paved over for a parking lot.
“I was shocked when I realized the debate programs had slowly died off,” said Tedrow, 26.
Longtime debate coaches had retired or moved on, which meant debate class fell off many schools’ elective course offerings. And the competitive programs fizzled.
Tedrow, now a commercial land-use and real-estate attorney, is a debate evangelist. She credits her debate experience with laying the groundwork for her every success.
Research skills, analytical thinking and public speaking all come from debate.
Around the time she discovered many local speech and debate programs disappeared, Tedrow heard Orange County Schools Superintendent Barbara Jenkins speak at a breakfast. She decided to take the superintendent up on her plea for more people to get involved in the schools.
She sent Jenkins an email the next day and told her that debate programs were dying. But she did more than complain. She volunteered to take on the problem.
“I said this is how I can get it done if you let me,” she said.
Jenkins was immediately supportive.
“We need to get behind the notion of making smart popular,” Jenkins told me. “And students need to know that smart is not just something that you are. Smart is something you can work hard to become.”
Within a few months Tedrow joined forces with Beth Eskin, who led her debate students at Timber Creek High School to a state title a few years ago.
By May the two launched the Central Florida Debate Initiative. Now the number of Orange County high schools with debate programs has jumped from five to 14.
And the effort is moving to other nearby counties, with seven more schools in Osceola, Volusia, Polk and Brevard counties.
It’s a case of how good things can happen — and quickly — when the right people get together to do the right thing for students.
The initiative provides free training to students and teachers and hosts monthly after-school competitions that allow schools to face off. The entry fee for students is just $3, far lower than the cost to travel to most far-flung debate events.
The results are astounding. More than 100 students participated in a recent competition.
And these gatherings aren’t nerd-fests.
Some forms of debate require teams to work together to argue about current events such as the NSA data-collection scandal. Other competitive debate looks more like a night at the theater. One category requires students to give 10-minute dramatic performances of pieces of literature.
Cathy Brown, an AP English teacher at Apopka High School, started a debate class this year and plans to start advanced debate next year.
At Colonial High School, AP Human Geography and English teacher Louis Reale jumped at the chance to start a program.
Since the club started in September, he has watched his students’ confidence grow. Some come from low-income families or speak English as a second language, and are excelling at debate.
“They don’t necessarily have everything given to them, but they have the realization that they have the same ability and are just as smart as kids who have more opportunity,” Reale said. “That perception is pretty powerful, especially for teenagers.”
Committed volunteers. Enthusiastic teachers. And inspired students. There’s plenty going right at our schools if we take the time to look.