The members of the nationally competitive John Carroll University Debate Team felt it was important to share their wealth of knowledge with others. They recently started a program that teaches debate skills to young men, ages 15 to 19, at the Cuyahoga Hills Juvenile Correctional Facility.
“We honestly believe that debate is the best educational experience that the vast majority of people can have,” JCU Debate coach Brent Brossmann said. “In terms of overall development of a student and the ability to think, reason, advocate, understand the way the world works, and be a good citizen, debate is about the best training you can possibly get.”
According to Brossmann, at the high school level, 37,000 students have been involved in debate programs offered at urban schools across major cities in the U.S. 99 percent of those have graduated and up to 95 percent have gone on to college.
These students have been more likely to attend class, increase their grade point averages, and are less likely to be involved in gangs and crime. Their scores climb as well – critical thinking scores have risen as much as 61 percent and reading scores 25 percent. At the college level, debaters are more likely to take classes outside their major, advance for higher degrees, and get a job in their chosen field.
“The skills developed go beyond just debate and help you deal with school and other issues you have going on,” senior debater Andy Labuza said. “It’s a new experience and a way to see the world from a different perspective. Debate is about defending and attacking arguments, not people.”
This type of engaging educational activity should not be restricted, argues Brossmann, but made accessible, especially to future adults.
“There’s no particular reason why that training ought to be limited to a few John Carroll students,” he explained. “These kids in the juvenile correctional facility are our future. They are part of our community. We want them to understand what they can do to make themselves and life better.”
So far, the youth are interested and are discovering the power of words in settling disputes and creating ideas.
“They take a lot of strides to make sure they understand what is going on and share their own opinion,” Labuza said. “Rarely do they get such an opportunity. Most of the youth have been very engaging.”
Brossmann was tuned into the opportunity to help youth through Stanley Miller, executive director of the Cleveland chapter of the NAACP. Miller invited Brossmann to a meeting regarding educational programs at Cuyahoga Hills.
“One of the [students] told me, ‘This is the only time we get to argue and not get in trouble.’ Some of them are really good at what they’re doing; some of them are really sharp. All of us want to be listened to; all of us want to be heard,” said Brossmann.
Plans include holding a debate tournament at the facility for the youth in the program around mid-December. Members of the debate team will judge the students during rounds and offer their input on areas of strength and improvement. The ultimate goal is to continue the program at the facility, where JCU debate students will take a leadership role in working with the young men.
Brossmann and Labuza believe that they are seeing another side of life by working in this program and interacting with the youth.
“There is a lot to be taken from teaching debate to the youth [such as] breaking the stigma about ‘prisoners,’” Labuza explained. “Yes these kids did break the law, but they are still people who are intelligent.”
But even though both enjoy the experience, it’s not about them, they say.
“I didn’t do it for what I got out of it [and] Andy is not doing it for what he gets out of it,” Brossmann added. “We’re doing it because we think it’ll make a real difference for them. We all benefit from that as part of a society.”