Waiting for their name to be called, 27 students gathered in a hot, over-crowded cafeteria during their lunch period last fall for a chance to audition for the Hyde Leadership Charter School’s middle school debate team.
For the audition, students were asked to prepare a minute-long speech on one of two topics: whether having a genetically modified baby is ethical, or whether professional athletes are overpaid. The students with the most well-prepared and convincing speeches would earn one of 15 coveted spots on the team.
When 13-year-old seventh grader Amir Wilson heard his name, he panicked. “I wrote down what I was going to say on a notecard,” Wilson recalled, “but when it was my turn, I realized that I had lost my notecard and had to wing it.”
It turns out Wilson had the right stuff. He made the team, and is now competing at debate tournaments across the city against hundreds of students. The team, coached by the school’s library media specialist, Valarie Hunsinger, had a slow start, but is now scooping up awards and recognition. The pressure can be tough, students say, but it can also provide some motivation.
“You have to just not focus on what everybody else is doing and focus on what you have to do,” said William Barkley, a 12-year-old seventh grader at Hyde.
Last summer, in preparation for their first competition, students were awarded scholarships from the AGAPE Leaders Institute, an organization that provides debate and speech training for students from elementary to high school. AGAPE’s in-school program trained students on public forum style debating, the format they would use while competing in debates for the American Debate League. In public forum, one of five styles of competitive scholastic debate, students argue in teams of two on a topic of national importance.
Last November, Hyde students prepped to argue whether public schools in the United States have probable cause to search students. Under the leadership of Hunsinger and her co-coach, Whitney Helton, a social studies teacher and also the school’s representative from the New York City Junior Ambassador Program, the students were confident that they’d win big.
They were wrong.
“The first competition was a rude awakening,” said Wilson. “We weren’t expecting the amount of talent at the debate tournament as we received.”
“I think we underestimated our opponents,” added Dania Flores Lopez, a 13-year-old seventh grader.
According to Hunsinger, the students did not take their first loss lightly; some even thought about quitting the team altogether. But it was Barkley who did not allow that initial outing to get the best of him.
“That night they all started emailing me, and William’s like, ‘When is the next tournament? We have to go!’” said Hunsinger.
In January, their second tournament yielded some different results. That day Hyde received an honorable mention for winning 8 of 12 debates. Student Adama Bah received the second place speaker award out of 130 debaters in the novice middle school division, and Barkley’s team went undefeated, placing fifth of 50 teams in the novice middle school division.
“It was shocking and surprising, but also fun because it was the first time that I had ever won anything,” said Barkley.
Debate not only gives students an opportunity to leave the Bronx to compete with students from all over New York City, it also helps develop literacy, critical thinking, public speaking and research skills. Students must be prepared to debate both sides of the argument; they only learn what side they must represent minutes before each round.
Wilson admitted to having a speech impediment, but credits joining the debate team with helping him become more confident. Lopez said she can cross-reference debate topics with what’s going on in her classrooms, and gain an edge.
“Right now we’re learning about embargos in my social studies class, and that’s also the next topic for our next tournament,” said Lopez. “I’m able to have an advantage over the other students because I can use what I learned in debate in my class.”
Some debate topics hit close to home. In January, students had to argue the economic benefits of immigration on the US economy. At a school where 99 percent of the students are black or Hispanic, Hunsinger noted that many students have family members who are dealing with these issues, and in debate, they have to be prepared to argue against their personal opinions.
“I just didn’t want to do this topic in the beginning because my parents are immigrants,” said Lopez. “But then I had to do this for my team.”
On March 18, Hyde’s debate team participated in their third tournament at the American Debate League’s Spring Classic at J.H.S. 185 in Flushing. The tournament hosted 300 students who debated on the topic, “Resolved: the US should lift its embargo against Cuba.” Overall, Hyde placed fourth for the most team wins. Lopez and Wilson both received medals for placing fifth in the novice division, while Barkley placed sixth and tied for the highest speaker points for the tournament.
According to Hyde Leadership’s annual school report, more than 88 percent of Hyde students are low-income and 135 out of 955 identify as homeless or mobile.
“There’s all of these studies that say that Hunts Point is the highest-risk community for children in New York City,” Hunsinger said. “And then we go to these tournaments and show that our students can do exactly what other students across the city can do, and do it really well.”
In other words, the youth of Hunts Point are more complex than any statistical data set, the kids say.
“It just pushes us further, to prove them wrong,” said Wilson, “even when they are trying their hardest to bring attention to that perception that we can’t do much because of where we’re from.”