It’s a Saturday, but the halls of Vestavia Hills High School is warm with students, a little bleary-eyed from an early start, but otherwise looking polished and starched. Twenty-five debate teams from schools around the state – including Mountain Brook and Altamont- have descended on the school for the first statewide tournament of the season on September 24.
In a French classroom plastered with maps and posters and foreign inspiration, two pairs of students face each other. They’re debating whether college athletes should be given stipends. The two students on the Montgomery Academy team wear navy blazers and khaki slacks – one looks like Tom Cruise from the Risky Business days.
Robyn Stiff, a ninth grader at Ramsay, and LaVentrice Peeples, a 10th grader at Carver, are competing for SpeakFirst, a team of students from the Birmingham City Schools. Their high heels might boost them a couple of inches over five feet.
The young women are solid at laying out a “pro” case flush with figures and persuasive quotes. But during the Q&A crossfire rounds, they are jaw-droppingly sharp, with an edge that slices smooth and easy.
One Montgomery Academy student asks Stiff is she doesn’t agree that for many athletes their purpose in college is to move on to professional sports.
“Maybe,” she says, “but the main purpose of college is – and should be – to receive an education. That’s why they’re called student athletes and not athlete students.”
She doesn’t look at her notes before asking, “Do you have any research to support your statement that all colleges are making millions of dollars in profit off athletics?”
When it’s time for Peeples to rebut, the judge asks if she’d like to use any of the team’s cumulative two minutes of preparation time. “Oh no, I don’t need it,” she says, already out of her desk. She does have research: Only 6 percent of Division 1 schools make a profit from athletics.
Tom Cruise reiterates that most colleges are indeed making money.
“Can you give me a percentage?” asks Peeples.
She cocks her head, letting her notebook fall to her side. “Well, then how can you say ‘most’ if you don’t have a percentage?”
There’s the silence of major points being scored.
The week before the Vestavia tournament, there was no silence at Architecture Works during debate practice. Surrounded by three-ring binders stuffed with evidence and legal pads full of notes, the eleven SpeakFirst students faced off across the tables, arguing pro and con over the stipend question.
SpeakFirst is one initiative of the nonprofit organization Impact. Two years ago, Founder and President Stephen Black began envisioning the “all-star” debate team as a way to target gifted students in Birmingham’s public high schools, offering them extra academic training to prepare them for competitive colleges and careers.
It’s not just about debate. At the time, Black was thinking about the outcome more than the method.
“I had no sense of debate,” he said. “Debate is just the answer to this question: If you take really talented, motivated students from an under-funded educational system and you have them in extracurricular time, what is the best use of their time in preparing them to perform well in colleges of their choice?”
Research backed up organized team debate as the answer, pointing to improved speaking ability, writing, research skills, and critical thinking.
If the research made the point, these kids are proving it.
The first students started SpeakFirst in fall 2004, and a second batch followed this fall. During the 2004-2005 academic year, each one put in more than 600 hours into the program, including 90 debate practices. The students are at Architecture Works three days a week from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., plus every other Saturday. Then there are the monthly tournaments. It’s a lot of time, a lot of early mornings, and a lot of missed television for any high schooler.
They’re there because they enjoy it. And they’re there because they get it.
“It feels right,” said ninth grader LaMar Copeland. “It makes me feel professional.”
“It put me on the playing field,” said Crystalline Jones, a sophomore at Hewitt Trussville. “It made my research papers stronger, my writing stronger. In history class I can talk back, increased my vocabulary and expanded my horizons. Public speaking is nothing – nobody’s a stranger to me.”
“It’s worth it because it’s going to help you in the long run,” Brandon Brown said. “It’s helped with essays and reaching conclusions, and I think more analytically now. It’s teaches you to think ahead to why something happens.”
Brown was at Tarrant last year – now he’s a tenth grader at Indian Springs on a $60,000 scholarship.
Black approached Indian Springs about the idea that SpeakFirst students might be a good fit for scholarships, and the school was enthusiastic about creating a relationship that would lead to future students.
“If I never would’ve done SpeakFirst, I never would’ve gotten to Indian Springs,” Brown said. “All the time I spent researching, debating, going to tournaments, spending my weekends, it was worth it.”
Of course, they do all love to argue.
“I like the fact that I get to argue with people and not get in trouble for it,” said Justin McCorvey, a ninth grader at Jefferson County I.B. He wants to be a criminal defense attorney.
“If I get in trouble with my mama, I want to rebut what she says,” Peeples said. “And she’s like, ‘You cannot debate me because I’m older and I know more than you know. And I’m like, ‘Mama, I’m on a debate team.'”
They find their debate time very different from school.
“Usually in class we don’t talk a lot,” Peeples said. “We do our work and go over it, and that’s it. We have dictionaries, but we don’t use dictionaries. SpeakFirst makes you use dictionaries. They make you speak.”
“They come into this moving past words they don’t know,” Black said. “It doesn’t stop them, it happens so frequently. Sometimes most of the words in a resolution are ones they don’t know.
Like whether offshoring is favorable to American economic development. They had no idea what offshoring was. They had no idea what economic development was. By the end of that month they were winning rounds against suburban kids.”
Vocabulary ends up being a huge issue. There’s a gap there, from the start, between the lexicon the kids at Altamont or Montgomery Academy have learned to throw around over the last 14 or 15 years and the verbal foundation students bring to SpeakFirst. And there’s a race to close that gap.
“This has made me comfortable expressing myself – it helps me to find the right words,” Stiff said.
She means that literally. She’s using the dictionary outside of practice, keeping track of words she’s unsure of at school.
“I go home and look it up and make sure I’m correct with the meaning,” she said.
“So you have your own dictionary at home?” she’s asked.
“A big one,” she answered.
Stating her case in front of tournament judges or bent over her Algebra homework, Stiff is pokerfaced and serene, more poised than any 14-year-old has a right to be. It is easy to see her at 30, briefcase and cell phone in hand, tailored business suit immaculate, heels clicking down marble hallways.
“Someone could walk in and say she doesn’t need this,” Black said. “Well, she would do fine without this program, but this program will help her do exceptionally. Fine is not enough for Robyn.
She’s not fine – she’s exceptional, and she deserves to have opportunities that are exceptional.”
The ultimate goal, of course, is to leave these students well-prepared for colleges and careers. And that goal has shaped SpeakFirst into a debate team with some unique perks.
When students began struggling in math class, Black decided this debate team would have an intensive math component. Now one-third of practice time is spent working with a 30-year math instructor.
Last summer, students got a feel for professional life with internships in law, medicine, journalism, and architecture. They visited five college campuses last year, including a trip to North Carolina. They met with admissions staff to hear exactly what they need to do now to get where they want to be.
Gathered around a conference table at Architecture Works, two young women have crashed the highly official interview of a third. Things quickly veer off course to chatting about high school, college, George Bush, downtown Birmingham. No piles of evidence in front of them. They don’t need sources. If The View were recast with beautiful teenagers with attitude, it would go something like this. (Note: Ratings would skyrocket.)
Their answers are rapid-fire and often simultaneous. What do we need to do to make schools better?
Three voices at once: “More good teachers.” How do we get them? “Pay them more.”
Crystalline Jones, with her expressive face and a take-over-the-room charm that makes you want to vote for her whether she’s running for anything or not, talks long and emphatically about the need to revitalize downtown. “They need to appeal to the young people coming out of college,” she says, “They’ve got money they can put in, they’ve got intelligence, they’ve got talent, they want to come back … but they don’t have an opportunity to do that.”
These are 15-year-olds.
So how do we make a real difference in Birmingham?
“Give me an office.” That was Peeples.
Jones mentions when people say to her that they don’t like “those people,” but reassure her that “you’re not like them.” She talks about the society that helped make “those people.”
“It’s created a system,” she says. “If you’d told me when I was in elementary at Hemphill that I was going to college, I wouldn’t have believed you. It’s a whole system where the options are welfare, selling drugs to make money, joining a gang because that’s the only family you’ve got because your Mama’s working three jobs, and your dad’s not there.”
“It sets you up to fail,” says Peeples.
Jones doesn’t break her flow. “And nobody would tell you ‘no’ except for people like Stephen Black. Who’ll come in and tell you ‘no’ and level the playing field.”
There is a confidence about these teenagers, a comfort in their own skin. They talk about debating in front of a judge, sitting in on depositions, going to city council meetings, which colleges might offer the best scholarships.
It’s hard to believe that confidence wasn’t there a year ago.
“When I first started, I was real shy,” Peeples said. “I didn’t want to stand up and talk in front of people, I didn’t want to debate, but now I’m so open-minded I’ll talk to anybody. You don’t even have to say anything, I’ll just talk to myself.”
“I used to be really, really shy when it came to meeting new people,” said Zita Orji, a 10th grader at Ramsay. “I wouldn’t say anything, I would sit there. Debate brought out my personality. I can go meet somebody now, and I wouldn’t feel awkward at all.”
It’s that sense of themselves, the still-shifting awareness of what they can do that Black finds to be the most dramatic difference between the students he first recruited and the ones looking back at him now.
“They all develop this powerful sense of their own ability to do something really well,” he said.
“They’re competing with wealthier suburban kids in an academic setting, interacting with people in all kinds of professions, visiting colleges so they see it tangibly in front of them and it’s not just some far off dream.”
They clearly don’t see it as a dream.
“I’m waiting to explore more colleges,” Peeples said. “Because I want to go to Duke, but I want to find out about Harvard, Princeton, and Yale also.”
She’s been around a lot of lawyers since starting SpeakFirst, and the exposure’s made her question her goal of becoming a doctor. For now, she’s learning more about the legal profession. Regardless, as a hobby, she wants to be a fashion designer. On the side.
“I didn’t know I could think like this or write like this,” said Whitney Jones, a 10th grader at Clay.
Knowing that she can has only complicated her thoughts on a career. She used to think of being an obstetrician, then she considered law. Now she’s leaning toward owning her own business.
“I like publishing, and I like to write,” she said. She’s working on two fiction stories and has a notebook of poetry at home. “I want a degree in liberal arts and business management so that whatever I choose I can go into it. I don’t want one career – I want like five.”
Crystalline Jones had thought she wanted to be an OB-GYN, but after her internship this summer at Brookwood Medical Center, she’s thinking more about anesthesiology.
“It takes like 12 years of school, but after debate, I can handle school,” she said. “I’ve debated in front of Judge U. W. Clemon, had a conversation with Don Siegelman – the experience debate has given me goes beyond education. It put me where I needed to be.”
The program itself is all about where these kids need to be. Where they should be.
“Without this, they’re not going to get in trouble,” Black said. “They’ll get good grades, they’ll win awards. But they won’t be prepared to do very well in college. And there’s a sense that that’s just the way these kinds of kids are. The exceptional ones will be okay, but you’re not going to think to yourself, ‘That kid could be my lawyer one day.’ You think she’ll make it through her school and go toJeffState.
“How do you know she didn’t deserve to go to Duke? I’m not interested in the best kids doing okay. I’m interested in them realizing their potential.”
In the 11 debate tournaments during the last academic year, SpeakFirst had never placed in the top five during a tournament. The Vestavia tournament, with its 25 teams, lasted from 8 a.m. until after 5 p.m. By the awards ceremony, the four SpeakFirst teams, including Stiff and Peeples, have gone through four debates each.
When the top ten teams were called out, the usual suspects are there – Altamont,MontgomeryAcademy, Vestavia. But at No. 5 – a SpeakFirst team, Chelsi Stancil and Maya Posey. After a moment of stunned silence, the SpeakFirst table goes wild. They keep chattering and hugging as the rest of the names are called out, giddy from the shock of an award. Then the second jolt comes. At No. 1 – at the top of the entire debate tournament – Robyn Stiff and LaVentrice Peeples.
Tom Cruise did not place.
The Birmingham Weekly
By Ginny Phillips