In school choice debate, students speak best

Detroit News

It doesn’t take long after meeting Brooke Kimbrough to realize she probably wins most arguments. After all, the Detroit teen is one of the top debaters in the country.

Brooke, 16, is poised, confident and sports hip glasses. And she’s earned that bildeaplomb through years of hard work. A senior, she attends University Preparatory High School — a charter school in Detroit. She wasn’t thrilled about the school in the beginning, but she’s happy now. As a freshman, she got involved with the school’s newly formed debate team. It was a life-changing decision.

“Debate was the place I made my first friends,” Brooke says. “It opens up a world of possibilities. It’s easier to learn stuff about the world with debate. You see it, you learn it, you debate it.”

This week is National School Choice Week, which celebrates and encourages broader education options. Choice is alive and well in Detroit, where more than half of students attend charter schools — the second highest percentage in the country behind New Orleans. The charter and choice movements are based on the premise that parents make the best decisions for their children’s education.

That’s definitely the case with Brooke. She and her debate partner, Rayvon Dean, 17, are breaking ground for Detroit students. They will be the first urban team from Michigan to compete in the Tournament of Champions at the University of Kentucky this spring. Think of it as the Super Bowl for high school debate teams.

It’s a significant feat, thanks in large part to the dedication of debate coach Sharon Hopkins. When she agreed to start the team four years ago, Hopkins, who also teaches ninth grade U.S. history, had no debate experience. But she believed it was the right thing for her students, so she jumped in, and now is proud of how far her debate stars have come. “Our students can debate anybody,” Hopkins says.

Holly Reiss, executive director of the Detroit Urban Debate League, lauds the University Prep accomplishments. The league has helped 15 programs in Metro Detroit, at schools that serve predominantly minority and low-income families.

Reiss says it’s rare for urban teams to do so well in national competition. “It’s really impressive,” she says. “There aren’t many Urban Debate Leagues breaking these barriers.”

Brooke feels she’s become a better student overall, despite all the long hours she devotes to debating. “It’s made me a better thinker,” she says.

That’s true of most students who debate, Reiss says. “The impact is so real and immediate,” she says. Grades and test scores often improve, and all the students in Detroit who have participated in debate have graduated from high school; many go on to college.

The added benefit for Brooke is the travel. Next month, she and Rayvon are going to California for a tournament. “I would not have been traveling half so much as I’m doing with debate,” she says.

Of course, it’s expensive to send students to these tournaments. That’s often one of the biggest impediments to urban programs as the schools and families don’t have the resources for such cost intensive extracurricular activities. To help send Brooke and Rayvon to Kentucky, Hopkins is hoping to raise the money from the community.

Brooke has already been accepted to three universities — two of which are in Michigan. She’s thinking about law school after that.

“These are kids that are going places,” Reiss says.