Sacramento Urban Debate League students score a win

Jeff vonKaenel

High-school competitions belong in a world of their own. You'll find hundreds of young people, some who look like they've come straight from elementary school and others who had to shave in the morning. These young people dream big, and their dreams are not encumbered by future obstacles. Excitement, nervousness and hormones abound. And, of course, there's an array of snack foods for sale, all to raise money for some worthy school projects.

My previous experiences of daylong high-school competitions involved high-school swim team, followed many years later by my kids’ drum line competitions. So I felt right at home attending the recent National Catholic Forensic League speech and debate national qualifier competition held at McClatchy High School.

There were some differences, however, between today and when I was young. For example, the uniforms. Instead of high-school-issued swimsuits or band gear, the young male debaters were wearing very traditional business suits, and the female debaters the equivalent of traditional clothing for women. It was definitely a dress-for-success debate.

If you have never been to a high-school competition, then you might think that anywhere you find a few hundred high-school kids together there would be trouble. You would be wrong. The young debaters, swimmers or drum line competitors are incredibly focused on their upcoming performance.

I was invited to this debate competition by the Sacramento Urban Debate League President Stephen Goldberg and Executive Director Mark Hernandez. Like all the best coaches, Mark and Stephen have an incredible love for both the sport and the students. But they have something else.

They have a desire to bring the debate experience, generally only found in elite, wealthy schools, to more urban, less wealthy schools, such as Monterey Trail, Rosemont and Cordova high schools.

I watched their students in the policy debate competition. This year’s topic was whether the United States federal government should substantially increase its nonmilitary exploration or development of the Earth’s oceans.

In the competition, the debaters are each assigned an affirmative or negative side of the topic. They debate each other in eight- and five-minute segments. In the next round, they take the opposite position, debating different contestants.

When asked what it was like learning how to debate both sides of a policy position, Cordova High School sophomore Gina Spikes told me that it helped her think better and also “made my opinions broader.”

It appears so. It would be hard to debate even one side of an issue at the level I saw during the policy debate. The well-dressed kids were inspiring. And it was a good day for the Sacramento Urban Debate League. A very happy Mark emailed me later to tell me that their students “took four of the five speakers awards and had two of the four teams in the final four.”

While many policy issues were debated that day, what the Sacramento Urban Debate League does for students is not debatable. The kids win.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.