Newark’s Great Debaters

Those who have seen the movie “The Great Debaters,” witnessed a profound and uplifting narrative about students at a small historically black college in Texas who become champion debaters in the 1930’s Jim Crow South.   Based on a true story, the film’s emotional power lies in the extraordinary sense of nobility of spirit represented by the struggle of those young debaters to smash racial barriers and triumph as “competitors of the mind.”

Fast forward to August 2010, when I had the privilege of experiencing that nobility of spirit first hand during a visit to the White House with a 17 year old debater from University High School in Newark, who was being recognized by President Obama as one of the top winners of this year’s NY Chase Urban Debate National Championships.  The student, Shagun Kukreja, a member of the Jersey Urban Debate League (JUDL), joined three other high school debaters and tournament winners (from Atlanta and Chicago) in a historic Oval Office chat with President Obama.  A little background –Debate in Newark originated at Science High School more than two decades ago and was the brain child of long time educator and science teacher Brent Farrand, who today leads the JUDL.   The victories of the JUDL team – regionally and nationally, beating the best and most well financed teams in the country, has been no less than spectacular.

Never before had the White House invited high school debaters from the nation’s urban communities. The wonder and excitement of this moment for these four students reminded me of the scene in the great debaters where the students enter into the hollowed buildings at Harvard for the climactic debate.  It was and will forever be a special moment for all of us, as it revealed that real life can be even more dramatic than a Hollywood movie.

The D.C. visit by Shagun and her colleagues included a flurry of meetings with senators and congressional representatives, including our own Congressman Donald Payne and Senator Frank Lautenberg.  Several were former debaters.  In these meetings, each of the debaters distinguished themselves as incredibly smart, confident, articulate and poised. Indeed, they engaged Obama with such ease and comfortability that even he seemed amazed.  It wasn’t that they used elegant rhetoric, but rather, that they exhibited overwhelming command of the facts and an ability to speak on topic clearly and concisely.  I wished every resident of Newark and New Jersey could have listened to Shagun talk with the President and answer his questions about her winning arguments in the national tournament. This is what the debate experience at Newark schools is doing for young people.  It is turning them into confident advocates, who spend many hours after school to research, develop and debate national policy proposals and to compete with the best young debaters in the country.

Singularly, the reason is JUDL.   Spreading the gospel of debate, JUDL is serving more than 600 students in Newark in more than 20 middle and high schools.  Debate has even moved into the elementary schools.  More than 94% of JUDL debaters graduate high school and attend four year colleges with more than 75% earning college degrees.  JUDL has even been triumphant in getting young people in gangs to turn their lives around as a result of their debate experience.  Moreover, hundreds of our former debaters are now leading citizens in the public and private arenas, serving as lawyers, teachers, managers, elected officials, CEO’s and administrators.  Some former debaters have come back to Newark to be public leaders, like Roger Leone, former principal of University High school and now Deputy Chief Academic Officer with the Newark Public Schools or Jonathan Alston, a former champion debater who teaches at Science High School and coaches for JUDL.

Evaluation and assessment reports on debate programs have demonstrated that they lead to a measurable increase of GPA in middle schools, a dramatic increase in reading scores, and improved student conduct.  More than 150 colleges and universities across the country actively recruit urban debaters and many offer four year debate scholarships.  Imagine the change in norms of academic excellence as debaters develop and use critical thinking skills in the classroom.  Imagine the benefit to the school, to parents, and to the city of having graduation high school rates above 90% (national average is only 72%).  And imagine the benefit to the community economically and socially when more students graduate on time and engage in productive activity.

Thankfully, JUDL’s sponsors and supporters understand that debate is more than a scholastic sport; rather, it is an educational experience that teaches young people the skills that lead to critical thinking, intellectual confidence, excellent oral communication, and public leadership.  Indeed, Debate is so successful in Newark that it should become a critical component of the sweeping educational reforms underway.

Let me close with a story which I often tell because it makes my point about the need to illuminate the talent and abilities of our Newark students. Several years ago, while at a Rutgers college fair, one of the Newark JUDL debaters, approached the Rutgers table to ask about the University.  I began to sing Rutgers’ praises and the benefits of living on campus when she suddenly said, “I’m a debater and I need to be challenged.  I am not sure that Rutgers could provide me with the rigor that I need to feel challenged as a student.” There was an embarrassing silence. It’s unusual for me, or to be sure, most lawyers, to become speechless.  However, this might have been the only moment in my life where I can remember being struck silent.  Why?  Not because I didn’t expect a Newark student to so boldly present her intellectual persona, or to be as fiercely confident in her abilities, or to challenge the legitimacy of the academy to train and educate her.  In fact, I was somewhat amused and impressed at the hint of intellectual arrogance.

Rather, it was that after all of my years as a supporter of debate in Newark, this was the first time that I really understood its transforming power.   Communication is, I would argue, at the very heart of what it means to be a human being.  Debate provides our children with this precious resource in order that they might not only persevere but triumph.  It is my belief that Debate is the best investment we can make in our children. It may indeed save our schools.

If you haven’t yet seen the great debaters, you can rent it on DVD and revel in its storytelling.  But if you want to see great debaters live and in living color, check out the Jersey Urban Debate League  (

(Marcia Brown, Esq. serves as board member of JUDL and is Vice Chancellor at Rutgers University – Newark.  She has been a debate advocate and supporter since 1988 when her daughter was a debater at science High School.)

Reprinted with permission.

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