Urban debaters want area youths to make an argument

The Florida Times-Union

June 26, 2008

The Times-Union

Jerrell Baker credits his Raines High School education for helping take him and many of his Jacksonville classmates across the world and into successful careers.

The 1990 graduate is coaching one of the largest urban debate teams in Baltimore, a city that has more than 30 high schools involved in the program.

Baker has seen the transformation in his students, former gang members and dropouts now more knowledgeable about the workings of the World Bank than the majority of educated adults.

As Jacksonville’s schools continue their slide from the time Baker was a student, he and others want to bring those same experiences to local youth and are participating in an Urban Debate Forum with two days of events beginning Friday. School officials, nonprofits and community leaders are invited to learn more about urban debate leagues, which are established in several major cities but not as common in the South.

Individual schools have teams, similar to athletic programs, and square off in local and regional competitions.

The “urban” in the title has more to do with the geographic location of the schools than it does with the topics students debate. The teams debate foreign affairs and economic policy, similar to the 2007 film The Great Debaters, starring Denzel Washington.

Duval County School Board Chairwoman Betty Burney said she’s interested in hearing more and said the critical thinking skills and self-esteem encouraged by debate are needed in Jacksonville’s public schools.

No cost estimates have been provided, but the goal is to start with high schools and move to middle schools, said Jermyn Shannon-EL, co-founder of Blacksonville Community Network, which is hosting the two-day session.

The debates can motivate students more than a typical homework assignment, said Will Baker, executive director of the New York-based Associated Leaders of Urban Debate.

If a teacher tells a student to just read a book, the student might not be into it, said Will Baker, no relation to Jerrell Baker. But if a student knows there will be a debate vs. another student on the subject next week, he or she might read five books and scour the Internet to become prepared.

The reason is simple, Will Baker said.

“Kids fear embarrassment worse than death,” he said.

Jerrell Baker said there are 1,200 to 1,300 students involved in middle school and high school debate, and almost every student ends up going on to college.

Baker’s Baltimore students have debated at some of the nation’s elite colleges, including Harvard, Rutgers and Northwestern. For many of his students, it was their first time outside of Baltimore.

He’s hoping students in his hometown will have the chance for similar experiences.

matt.galnor@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4550 This story can be found on Jacksonville.com at http://www.jacksonville.com/tu-online/stories/062608/met_295604018.shtml.

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