Debate program fires up urban youth

Dallas Morning News, June 15, 2012

Jazielle Yugalde’s parents always knew she had a mouth on her.

“I would never shut up,” said the 15-year-old, who will be a sophomore at Oak Cliff’s Sunset High School next year.

But she hadn’t found anywhere to direct her talkativeness until last year, when she joined the school’s budding debate team, brought to life with the help of the Dallas Urban Debate Alliance.

Now, Jazielle is one of about 50 Dallas Independent School District students camped at the University of North Texas in Denton. They’re learning about debate strategies from guest lecturers representing schools such as Dartmouth, Harvard, Wake Forest and Southern Methodist University.

Debate, Jazielle said, is “exciting. You never know what somebody’s going to say. So it gives you that element of surprise.”

All the research required in debate makes her feel well-informed. And that feeling is well-founded: Last year, she and her debate partner lost only twice, and she was named the state’s top newcomer.

National movement

This week’s camp kicks off an academic year of debate sponsored by the Dallas alliance, one of about 20 members of the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues. The national body helps underserved urban schools build teams, compete in league tournaments and train coaches who have little or no debate experience.

In just its fifth year, the Dallas alliance, which works solely with DISD, was named the group’s most outstanding program. Until last year, it had operated in about a dozen DISD schools, but the number hit 30 this year as efforts expanded into middle schools, with more growth planned for next year.

The program helps introduce disadvantaged students to an activity usually confined to wealthier districts, said Nicole Serrano, executive director of the Dallas alliance. Equally important are the connections they make with other kids across the district, as well as with university lecturers who help open their eyes to college possibilities.

“College has always been my plan,” Jazielle said. “But now I want to go to a college with a good debate team.”

At this week’s camp, the mostly Latino and black students immersed themselves in transportation infrastructure, the topic that will define the coming academic year’s tournaments. They listened to instructors such as Chris Crowe of the University of Texas at San Antonio, who schooled them on various ways of refuting arguments.

The camp culminates with a two-day tournament this weekend.

Throughout the academic year, alliance schools compete against each other, with more advanced students going on to other tournaments or to regional or national events.

Volunteer mentors offer their time as advisers, and law firms take turns sponsoring tournaments. “The legal community has been generous,” said Dallas attorney Craig Budner, who debated at both St. Mark’s School of Texas and Dartmouth College and co-founded the local program in 2007.

Budner knows debate is costly. Well-financed teams travel across the country to tournaments and camps, paying for several days of lodging and food.

Finding direction

Recognizing how important debate had been in his life, he wanted kids from less-fortunate schools to have the same opportunity.

“These are very bright kids, but they’re going to get lost if they don’t latch on to an activity,” Budner said.

Carlos Vasquez, a once-directionless 16-year-old student at Samuell High School in southeast Dallas, fell into debate by accident and never looked back. He’s now co-captain of the school’s debate squad.

“Instead of going out and doing crazy teenager stuff, I became more interested in college,” he said. “I got away from all my bad influences.”

Now, he said, he wants to be a lawyer.

Debate, he said, gives him adrenaline and appeals to his competitive nature. “I like to learn,” he said. “Maybe all my life, I was just learning the wrong things.”

Mary Jean Ackert, coach at Bryan Adams High School in East Dallas, said she’s seen failing kids blossom and shy kids come to life through debate. One such student applied to the camp so she could mentor other kids next year.

“She told me, ‘I came to camp because I want to help you in class.’ She wants to be a leader,” Ackert said.

This year’s attendance more than doubled that of last year’s camp at UNT, which was the alliance’s first residential outing.

“If the program wasn’t here, I would never have made this change,” Carlos said. “I’ve never seen anything positive like this that was this much fun.”