Champaign debate team makes inspired showing in Chicago

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Champaign debate team makes inspired showing in Chicago


Freedom School, Debate Team, Youth Education


Jodi Heckel





14 March 2010

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CHAMPAIGN – Here's how the movie went: Denzel Washington plays a professor who forms a debate team at his Texas college in 1935. It's the Jim Crow era, and the team of black students is the first to debate teams from white colleges. They go on to challenge Harvard University for the national championship.

Here's how the story goes in Champaign: Vernessa Gipson of the Regional Office of Education is inspired by the movie, "The Great Debaters." She forms a debate team of Champaign high school students, gets them into the Chicago Debate League as a guest team, and they win the conference championship in the junior varsity division.

Their story is as good as any movie.

Take Keyonte Cobb. The junior at Central High admits he was getting into a lot of trouble at school. He was involved with a gang and he got into fights. He spent some time in jail.

Gipson, who is the director of school, family and community partnerships for the Regional Office of Education, met Keyonte when he wanted to join the hip hop dance club that is part of the Regional Office's Teen Reach program.

"I was listening to him talk, and how much he talked," Gipson said. She suggested he join the debate team instead.

Keyonte says doing so has changed his life.

"It made me a new person," he said. "It's made a big change in my life."

Now, he's looking at colleges such as Howard University and Morehouse College. He hopes to study performing arts and pre-law. At a recent college fair, his first question to the college representatives was if their schools had a debate team, Gipson said.

When she was forming the debate team, Gipson asked teachers for recommendations. None of the six on the team were among the recommended students. But Gipson saw something in them: their "mouthiness."

Initially the debate team attracted a number of students. But many didn't stick with it after they saw how much work it would be.

In addition to the six team members who compete, about a dozen other students participate in debate after school.

The debaters spend several hours nearly every Saturday working on their research or arguments. The week before a tournament, they also meet after school every day for several hours. They have a binder with 600 pages of research.

Every debate team in the country argues the same issue. This year's resolution: "The United States federal government should substantially increase social services for persons living in poverty in the United States."

Debaters argue on several topic areas related to the resolution, advocating for or against the following: a "single stop" location for access to social services; extending higher education opportunities to illegal immigrants; targeting Katrina victims to receive more social services; providing housing first and quickly to the homeless before focusing on other necessary social services; and providing unlimited social services to sex workers.

Teams pick their topics to support, but they must prepare to argue against all of the topics in a debate.

"That's the good thing about debate," said Bria Harvey, a junior at Centennial High. "You get to see both sides. It makes us more open to things."

All that work intimidated Claire Johnson, a freshman at Central. She was one of those who dropped out of debate early on.

"At first, it was really hard, the studying," Claire said. "I didn't like the studying very much at all."

But after the team gave a mock debate at Central, she rejoined. It looked like too much fun to miss.

"I love to argue already," Claire said.

Gipson agreed: "I said, 'Put it to good use, girl.'"

(The work might have scared some students, but it brought out the obsessive side of Central sophomore DaNaya Burnett. She's particular about her files.

"Everything for me has to be organized and color-coded," DaNaya said. "I can't put yellow files in with the red."

"Housing would be with Katrina," Gipson joked.

"It's just not acceptable," DaNaya replied.

Because the debate team is the only one in the Champaign and Urbana school districts, it participated in the Chicago Debate League. Gipson asked to participate in a debate coach training session with the league.

Then she talked with the league's executive director, telling him, "My kids down here need this experience to travel and see other gifted kids of color doing something unique."

He agreed to let the team participate as a guest school for one year, requiring them to pay a $2,500 stipend. Regional Office of Education's grants covered the stipend, as well as materials and mileage, hotels and meals when the team traveled to Chicago.

The team debated in five tournaments between November and February. The six team members were divided into teams of two, who took turns making an argument for their case and rebutting their opponents' arguments.

In addition to team awards, individual speakers are recognized. The students recently teased Keyonte about an award he received for poise and compassion shown to his opponents. During his first few debates, he showed attitude rather than compassion.

"His nonverbals were so aggressive," Gipson said. "It was the eyes, the body language, the gesturing. What I always said to Keyonte is, 'Debate is not a fight.'"

The students had to learn to "keep more of a stoic face and speak with passion, not intimidation," Gipson said. "To speak to the judge, not the opponent."

They also learned to take notes quickly and succinctly, so they could rebut their opponents' arguments accurately. They improved their reading comprehension and learned about current events.

To participate in tournaments, the debaters had to keep their grades up, and their behavior – no detentions allowed.

Keyonte had a C in one class after the first debate. Barbara Cook – an attendance secretary at Central and an assistant site coordinator for the regional office who also works with the debate team – let him slide and participate in the next debate.

But then he got a D.

He couldn't debate again until he raised his grade. It didn't take long for him to do so.

"I didn't want debate to be taken from me, because I knew how much it had done for me," Keyonte said.

When Gipson felt Bria was being distracted by electronics during debate practice, she called Bria's mother. And visited the house. And initiated a family conference about the matter.

"I got everything taken from me," Bria said. "Laptop, iPod, cell phone."

She complained recently that she still hasn't had them returned.

"She's a debate champion, and she still doesn't have her electronics," Gipson said.

All that hard work and pushing to improve has paid off.

"I've seen them come from being really insecure about their own ability to having much more confidence," Gipson said. "We heard so much 'I can't' out of this group, and Barb and I saw so much potential."




Jodi Heckel, “Champaign debate team makes inspired showing in Chicago,” eBlack Champaign-Urbana, accessed August 21, 2019,

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