Lessons from Stoneman Douglas: How Debate Programs Drive Activism and Achievement

By DeNisco, Alison | District Administration, May 2018 | Go to article overview

Lessons from Stoneman Douglas: How Debate Programs Drive Activism and Achievement


DeNisco, Alison, District Administration


Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida, made headlines for their articulate arguments for gun control after a February shooting at their school left 17 dead.

Their eloquence and activism did not come as a surprise to district leaders: Broward County Public Schools operates a systemwide debate program in more than two dozen elementary schools and every middle and high school. The district also offers journalism, drama and other arts programs.

Public engagement programs such as debate and forensics instill students with confidence, says Mark Ingerson, a teacher and forensics team coach at Salem High School, part of Salem City Schools in Virginia. They also teach research, analysis and active listening skills.

"These kids have been trained in public speaking under pressure," Ingerson says. "Suddenly, they're speaking in front of news cameras, and they do it like it's nothing."

The Salem High School team has won 13 consecutive annual Virginia debate championships, and students have gone on to public-facing roles in politics and nonprofits.

Being a debate team captain improved a college applicant's chance of admission to the University of Pennsylvania by more than 60 percent, according to a widely cited 1999 Wall Street Journal analysis. And a 2017 study from debate education provider Millennial Speech & Debate found that of graduating seniors whose debate teams reached the finals at three national competitions, 79 percent went on to attend colleges ranked in the top 75 by US. News dr World Report.

Many districts have cut debate programs in recent years. Still, a number of schools nationwide are committed to teaching skills coaches say will last a lifetime, including how to maintain eye contact and ask meaningful questions.

"Creating an environment where students have a voice but also understand the logistics and chain of command of society, of their school, of their community, is important," says Tara Grieb, principal of Stissing Mountain Junior/Senior High School in Pine Plains, New York, which offers forensics, mock trial, key club and model UN programs. …

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