Tulane-sponsored Debate League helps students overcome adversity

 As director’s teaching position ends, debate program’s future appears uncertain

This story was published on April 15, 2011 in The Tulane Hullabaloo. 

Sweating just a little in his pressed peach-colored shirt and striped tie, 14-year-old Malik Tropez faced the packed Lavin-Bernick Center conference room and argued his position that rap music causes more harm than good.

Peppered with personal anecdotes and data on rap’s correlation with adolescent crime, violence and promiscuity, Malik’s argument was compelling. In fact, if it weren’t for a few shaky words and mispronunciations, you might have never known that this confident young man had long battled a speech impediment and fear of public speaking.

Tulanes debate program has helped Malik Tropez,a 14-year-old at Lafayette Charter School, battle a speech impediment and crippling fear of public speaking.

“Now, I feel like I have something to say that matters,” said Malik, who has been debating competitively for two years. “Adults listen to me now.”

But Malik’s story, an unlikely metamorphosis from shy, inarticulate and apathetic to presenting coherent arguments on important issues, is emblematic of the Tulane Debate League’s impact on the 200 New Orleans public school students it serves. Since Tulane English postdoctorate fellow Ryan McBride launched the program in 2009, more than 150 Tulane students have coached children at six underperforming middle schools around the city in competitive debate.

“Once these kids catch a glimpse of their own potential, they are unstoppable,” McBride said. “They see what they are capable of, and they go for the intellectual challenge.”

The league held its largest debate tournament Saturday in the Lavin-Bernick Center, drawing 19 teams from eight schools. Approximately 50 Tulane students were the judges and coaches for the competitions, wherein one team had to prove a statement and the opposing team had to refute it. The judges determine the winning team to be the one that best laid out its argument beyond a reasonable doubt on topics ranging from free speech to drilling moratoriums.

This competition structure is based on a model developed by the Middle School Public Debate Program at Claremont College in Claremont, Calif., which has enacted leagues that collectively serve more than 40,000 students nationwide. MSPDP director Kate Shuster came to Saturday’s event to see how her program’s model was working in New Orleans.

“New Orleans is the single biggest success story we’ve seen,” Shuster said. “The students here are engaged and definitely not afraid of an argument. Tulane’s support has been instrumental. Dr. McBride is an exceptional administrator. He inspires both the Tulane and the middle school students to want to learn and improve.”

In such low-income middle schools — one in ten students go to college and 95 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch — the program’s impact on students is clear. Many have chosen to apply to higher-performing high schools than they originally anticipated, and now see attending Tulane.

“Forming arguments is no small feat,” McBride said. “To recognize what an assertion is, to determine if it follows good logic and reason, to even listen at all — these are all skills most adults don’t even have. This gives the kids a lifelong confidence because they know they are capable of debating any topic.”

This year, the debate program expanded to include Arthur Ashe Charter School. McBride plans to expand to more schools, such as Samuel J. Green Charter School and others.

But the league’s future with McBride is uncertain. McBride’s position at Tulane as a post-doctorate fellow ends next May so he cannot continue organizing the debate league unless he can find another job that allows him to do so.

In response, Tulane students involved with the league have circulated petitions calling for Tulane to create a position to oversee the debate program. They have garnered more than 1,000 signatures so far.

“We’re not calling for Tulane to hire Ryan [McBride] but rather to create a paid director position to keep this program afloat permanently,” said Chris Truman, a Tulane junior who coaches students at Lafayette Academy Charter School.

“Other postdoctorates we’ve asked to help have said, ‘That’s way too much work, I cant do that’ purely because there is no pay attached,” Truman said. “All of us students are passionate and motivated, but we’re going to graduate. It would be a shame for this program to run as a skeleton of what it once was.”

Assistant provost Anna Lopez said that while the program’s success was clear, the need for a new position was not.

“A big possibility is for the English department to make this program part of the official load of the post-doctorate teaching fellow,” Lopez said. “It would be in the English department’s best interest to sustain it. It would be in everyone’s best interest to sustain it. But how? I don’t know.”

Meanwhile, middle school students like Malik continue to develop their postulating skills.

When asked if he has a girlfriend, Malik convincingly ticks off the reasons why not on his fingers: “One–no girls think I’m cute. Two–no girls like me. Three–I don’t need no girlfriend.”

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