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A Hummel Report Investigation

Debating Their Future

Every month dozens of city kids gather for a competition. Not on a court or a field - but in classrooms throughout Providence, for all-day debate tournaments sponsored by the Rhode Island Urban Debate League. Jim Hummel finds the tournament is only part  of the equation, as the students have to spend hours getting ready for their opponents.


It is a coup d'état of sorts on this Saturday in late October - a peaceful coup as dozens of high school students have overtaken classrooms throughout Mount Pleasant High School, where they will spend the  day....debating.
They are part of the Rhode Island Urban Debate League, formed in 1999 for high school students from Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls and Woonsocket.  The tournament in October had a Halloween theme, with the participants encouraged to arrive in costume.
Belanger: ``I so firmly believe that there is no activity that can better prepare a young person for virtually anything they want to do.''
Ashley Belanger came to Rhode Island six years ago to become the organization's first executive director. She watches a similar transformation year after year.
Belanger: ``I've now seen students come from a shy freshman to the most advanced form of debate at the national tournament.''
Torres: ``Debate is...amazing. It's literally changed who I am.''
Rafael Torres was one of those shy freshman. To listen to him at a tournament held at Brown University last month, you'd never know he had overcome a huge stuttering problem.
Torres: ``It wasn't until about sophomore year when I started debating, that that grew from not being able to say a sentence without stuttering to the point now where I can give these speeches at debate without having a problem.''
The league's format is what's called policy debate - a resolution created at the beginning of the season and debated throughout the year. It is not easy. The participants have to put in hours of preparation, then during the day-long tournaments stand up before an adult judge and opponents - and give four 8-minute speeches in each round, sometimes going three or four rounds on a single day. And they face cross examination from the opposing side.
Torres: ``You can plan as much as you want for a debate but at the end of the day they're going to throw this at you, they're going to throw a card they didn't know they had at you. They're going to pull up a piece of evidence that's more recent than yours. And you just gotta pretend it didn't happen or you gotta argue something different, argue it better. It's a lot of on-your-feet thinking.''
This year's resolution: ``The United States government should substantially increase economic engagement with Mexico, Venezuela or Cuba.''
Belanger: ``If you told most high school students, hey do you want to join this thing and go out and research 30 pages of new material in this format that is so foreign to anything you've done I don't think there you would get a lot of takers.''

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