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A Worthy Argument

As urban schools suffer, new debate teams offer encouragement


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It's half-past Cheerios time on a Saturday morning, and two high school students from Euclid are assuring a stranger that if U.S. forces stay in the Middle East one more minute, he will die.

This is no fiery student-led anti-war protest. It's the inaugural tournament of the Cleveland Urban Debate League. Five high schools and 11 teams — all the most novice of the novice — have gathered at John Carroll University to argue about America's military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

After more than ten years of half-starts and setbacks, Dr. Brent Brossmann finally cobbled together debate programs at nine Cleveland-area urban schools that never offered them before. A 30-year debating veteran who also coaches John Carroll's team, Brossmann was ecstatic to bring newbies the oratory action that suburban and private schools have participated in for decades.

"I really believe that debate's the best education," he says. "You learn about the world and critical thinking. You defend yourself and research. And everything I've read suggests Cleveland needs some help, and I don't know what better way there is."

Think debate, and you probably think of the presidential variety, or perhaps displays of gentlemanly discourse, where morality and ideals are discussed with grand eloquence. Not so much with policy debate: Two sides square off on the topic, which remains the same all year. Each side gets four speeches, plus cross-examination time.

Arguments are constructed with evidence, clipped from newspapers, journals, magazines, and books, with each side displaying its case based on voices of authority as well as their own. Cause and effect are taken to the extreme, with chains of reactions echoing from policy changes made by the U.S. federal government (the basis for all policy debate topics) to end-of-days scenarios.

Nine schools, all but two of them part of the Cleveland public schools, signed on for the infant urban league. Their emergence comes at a time when the art of debate is fizzling.

Of all the public school systems in Cuyahoga County, fewer than eight have debate teams today, according to Jason Habig, coach of the formidable Hathaway Brown squad and district chair of the NFL — the National Forensic League, which governs high school debate. Even suburban and private schools are dropping out, citing the cost and time involved.

"We'll be lucky if there are 30 policy debate teams at the state tournament this year," says Habig, a former debater at St. Ignatius, a perennial powerhouse.

Urban leaguers, meanwhile, compete only against their own. At the first tournament earlier this year, the kids look nervous if emboldened. Sporting their finest khakis and dress shirts, they fidget and stutter, unsure even of the rules they must play by. Nevertheless, they dive in, exhibiting all the confidence they can muster — and more knowledge of Mid-East politics than their parents can likely claim.

The Euclid duo lays out a convincing argument for getting the hell out of Dodge. Insurgents are livid with America and only emboldened by our presence. Our efforts have failed and will continue to fail. Resentment and resistance are holding back peace efforts, and if we don't leave now, the only possible outcome is global nuclear war.

Arguing for the other side, two students from Brush peck away at Euclid's position. If we withdraw, all the bad guys will start eyeing up sides, like pick-up hoops with missiles instead of basketballs. Of course, the violence won't be contained there. It will spread across Asia and America, and the world will meet its demise in a fiery ball of global nuclear war.

Yes, everything ends in global nuclear war.

"Right now, there's a very large gap in talent level, no doubt about that," says Brossmann. "The kids are new, the coaches are new, and they're both learning as they go. You learn most quickly from varsity debaters who have done it before, and we don't have any of those yet. But it's a gap we're going to close very quickly."

It's a surprise they're competing at all, given that the Cleveland public schools are racked by a $48 million budget deficit, with news that 900 jobs and seven schools will disappear by next year.

Brossmann started corralling funding from foundations and private donors. His sell job was simple: Debate changes lives. Debate makes better students. And he has the ammo to back it up, including studies that show urban debate league participants enjoy skyrocketing test scores and graduation rates.

"The research right now shows the benefit is astounding," says Brossmann. "Debate could fundamentally change Cleveland's education and the city, keeping more kids in the area who are rational in how they see things, and who have advocacy skills and critical thinking. Keeping those kids here, creating better thinkers — it seems like a no-brainer."

The program relies on volunteers, from teachers taking on evening and weekend duties to seemingly random backers.

"The symmetry between inner-city life and debate is astonishing," says LeCharles Bentley, a WKNR sports-talk host and former NFL player who volunteers with the league despite having no prior debate experience. "Kids have to learn how to operate within the rules of school and society, all while not losing who and what they represent. Teaching youth to properly research and articulate a point is a skill that can carry them beyond the debate podium and into the real world."

And they have a hell of a cheerleader in Brossmann.

With the kids assembled in a large atrium just before go time at their first tournament, Brossmann launches into his introductory remarks with the fire of a football coach.

Frenetically pacing between large tables, he's talking about the big new family the kids are joining and what an inspiring endeavor they're embarking on. And he's excited — excited! he repeats — that they are here. It's a tad overblown but entirely endearing, and the kids eat it up like they're about to go level a running back.

By the end of the day, the team from Brush emerges undefeated. As they await the awards ceremony, the kids excitedly rehash the action with an ease that was absent earlier on. They laugh at their more obvious mistakes — like the one who asserted we need to bring the troops home to protect big American cities from criminals — and talk strategy for the season's three remaining debates.

Next year the plan is for eight tournaments. Brossmann is hopeful that more grant money will come through, and he'd like to see the 9 participating schools become 40 or 50, and have them ready to take on the likes of St. Ignatius.

And if that doesn't happen? If urban debate flounders like it has in so many other schools? Well, one need only ask any debater what the dire consequence of that would be: Global nuclear war.

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