Charter schools are privately-managed public schools. The first charter school opened in Illinois in 1997, and today there are more than 3,000 charter schools operating in 40 states. Illinois state law requires that charter schools must be non-religious, tuition-free, open to all students, and designed to serve a substantial portion of at-risk students.
Seven charter high schools participate in the Chicago Debate League, representing 13 percent of the the students served by the League. By comparison, charter schools represent six percent of the overall student population of Chicago.
The CDL charter schools are Noble Street College Prep, North Lawndale College Prep, Northtown Academy, Perspectives Calumet, Rauner College Prep, Rowe-Clark Math & Science Academy and Urban Prep Academy. In 2005, North Lawndale was the first Charter School to join the CDL.
These seven schools serve a student population that is 85 percent Title I and 95 percent African-American and Latino. They are part of the CPS’s Renaissance 2010 program and supported by the Office of New Schools. These schools averaged 6.1 debaters per tournament in the 2008/09 season, and the average size of their debate teams is just under 13 debaters per school. 89 charter high school students in Chicago will compete this year in the Chicago Debate League.
These tangible numbers demonstrate the scope of charter school involvement in the CDL. Noble Street’s Jonathan Rodriguez, who earned the Top Speaker Award in the JV Division of the 2008 Chicago Debate Championship and then followed that by winning the Top Speaker Award in the 2009 Varsity Division, shows the increasing competitiveness of charter schools in the CDL.
Significant credit for this growth in charter school participation in the CDL should be given to the Pritzker Traubert Family Foundation. Its grant funding to the Chicago Debate Commission (CDC) over the past two years helped lay the foundation for this expansion.
Joanne Lerman, coach at Noble Street, had this to say about her program: “Debate provides a unique opportunity for children to speak their minds, think critically, and fight for causes they believe in. Clearly the most powerful tool students derive from the process is the ability and the confidence to take a stand for what they believe in. I’m reminded of Jonathan Rodriguez, who, if we had not started the program would have never realized how absolutely magnificent he truly is. Or of Zhanna Kilroy who missed an entire year of school due to a medical condition, but who on her first day back found me to ask: ‘when is the first debate meeting’? Debate brings students to life. It empowers youth to take control over their own destiny, to take ownership and responsibility over their communities.”
Mark Janka, one of two coaches at Rowe-Clark, offered this insight into the benefits of debate for his students: “I didn’t realize until I started coaching how even students who are not star debaters can learn a fantastic set of skill at a level that is much more rigorous than most classroom activities. Students who learn how to play the ‘game’ of debate will have their college skill sets in order before they enter the college classroom. That’s a serious feat.”