Last week, the Super Bowl of high school policy debate competitions—the Tournament of Champions (TOC)—took place at the University of Kentucky. A team must win one of the nation’s other most prestigious debate competitions just to be invited to the TOC, and the 53 participating schools included some of the nation’s most expensive private schools, as well as public schools from some of the toniest suburbs.
But nestled among these elite schools was one Newark charter school that’s quickly making a name for itself in the debate community: North Star Academy.
Only one other school from New Jersey had ever been invited to the policy debate competition in the tournament’s 46-year history. This was the second consecutive year that North Star, part of the Uncommon network of charter schools, had been invited to the TOC, and it was among a handful of schools fielding more than one team in this year’s tournament.
North Star was represented by team partners Jahne Benthall and Lynn Yeboah, as well as partners Raveen Bryant and Gabriela Figueroa. These four girls were among just a handful of students of color competing at the TOC.
After a rousing send-off from their school, the North Star debaters piled into an SUV with a banner on the back that read #BlackGirlGenius and #ChangeHistory.
The North Star girls performed very well over three days of grueling competition. Both teams made it to the sweet sixteen, with Bryant and Figueroa making it all the way to the quarter-finals.
They’re Challenging Entire Worldviews
Sheryl Kaczmarek, director of the renowned debate program at Lexington High, outside Boston, notes how North Star has “exploded” onto the northeast debate scene. “People are sitting up and taking notice because the North Star kids have been very competitively successful…They bring into the debate space a lot of life experiences and perspectives on ideas and arguments that my kids find thought-provoking…They’re challenging whole worldviews of the kids they compete against.”
North Star debaters employ a somewhat controversial alternative style of debate: students not only cite statistics but infuse their unique identity and outlook into the debate. For example, North Star debaters might weave the poem “Black Girl Magic” or lyrics from a Kendrick Lamar rap into their arguments.
But what wins debates is evidence, and North Star debaters spend countless hours researching their arguments and those of their opponents. Success in debate takes an enormous amount of time and hard work.
Former secretary of education Arne Duncan addressed the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues in 2012. “Competitive debate is one of the great equalizers of educational opportunity,” said Duncan. “The experience of competing on an urban debate team boosts your college readiness—and your chance to succeed in life,” and it imparts the four “Cs” of 21st-century skills: critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity—and a fifth: civic awareness.
North Star’s coach Robert Burns, a former national debate champion at the high school and college levels who has coached several champion debaters, emphasizes the civic aspect. He sees debate as “a way for students to begin to exercise agency in high school, where they can begin to think about the political and social issues around them and use the tools they are learning in class—how to research, how to make an argument—and intersect them with what’s actually happening in their life and in public policy.”
The Benefits of Debate
North Star’s debate program reflects a growing recognition in the charter community that schools need not only to offer strong academics but also art, music, theater, speech, and debate so that students can unleash their passions and find their voice. It’s also an example of how charter students are beginning to make their presence felt in the spheres of the elite.
When asked about the benefits of debate, North Star students mention that it helps with communication, strategic thinking, and even note-taking skills. One student noted that her academic classes seem slow compared with the hyper-fast world of policy debate. But more important, it seems, are the non-academic benefits: travel, getting a taste of college life (most tournaments take place at colleges), and, especially, having a place where their voices are heard and respected.
“Debate teaches you the skills to advocate for yourself,” notes Gabriela Figueroa. It “allows us to be more comfortable in a conversational way…and speak confidently from your social location,” says Raveen Bryant. Jahne Benthall appreciates the opportunity to “raise awareness” on social issues, while her partner Lynn Yeboah values the “freedom” from rigid academics that debate offers and the exposure to diverse topics and viewpoints.
All four have college plans, intend to continue to debate, and are hoping for scholarships to help defray the cost.
Bright futures await these North Star girls. That’s not debatable.