Thoughts from the Executive Director: Looking forward, reflecting back

The school year has begun. Our debaters are about to launch into their preparations with regular practices and volumes of reading material. It’s an exciting time. New debaters will nervously stand up in front of the room to give their first tentative speeches. Debaters with a little more experience will run drills on cross-examination and get primed for cogent refutation. The most seasoned debaters will eagerly launch into the research materials, scour the internet for ideas, and spend endless hours in discussions with teammates and coaches to develop winning strategies.

Here at the CDC, we are looking forward to another exceptional season – number 16 for the Chicago Debate League (CDL). At the same time, we are very aware of the uncertainties facing our CPS partners, teachers, and students. The teachers’ contract is under negotiation and a strike notice has been filed. The district is facing daunting financial deficits. Schools are still figuring out their extended day plans. New leadership is promoting new educational directions.

But despite the uncertainties, we at the CDC feel optimistic. Why? Because we know the proven power of debate to transform the lives of Chicago youth.

Reflecting on our past year provides ample cause for optimism. A new peer-reviewed research article published in the Journal of Adolescence, and based on 10 years of CPS data, provided more evidence that debate is a powerful strategy to improve academic outcomes for at-risk students. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave a landmark speech extolling the benefits of urban debate and singling out Chicago as a national model. Our survey of our class of 2012 seniors revealed that a whopping 91% are going on to college or the military. Students from the CDL experienced exceptional competitive success regionally and nationally.

And, most importantly, we were able to provide debate to nearly 1400 students in 75 Chicago schools. Regardless of their competitive success, all of these students benefited from the power of debate. I’ve heard from so many students whose lives were transformed by participating in our program. Let me share a quote from one of them:

“Debate holds an unmatched quality of rigor that produces an amazing result of cognitive ability, speaking capabilities, and confidence. Debate has opened all kinds of doors – both in school and in life – that will allow me to choose paths and make decisions that many do not have the capability of making. Debate, in its essence, is a life changer.”

A cause for optimism, indeed!