Web Extra: I Have Learned Never To Say Never

June 6, 2002
Editor's Note: This story was published in Collegium 2001, an annual publication of Baylor's College of Arts and Sciences, and is reprinted here with permission.

Project Democracy debate team argues for the affirmative in D.C.

"Skye, herself, is articulate, intelligent, organized, and politically active. The most interesting thing about her is that she has translated all this into a language that engages and inspires middle schoolers. She has high expectations of kids where society has low." -- Dr. Karla Leeper

When many of us hear about a debate team, we generally think of a group of high-performing, academically motivated, upper-income students from families with impressive educational levels and considerable economic security. Project Democracy is a program that brings debate skills to middle school children of all socioeconomic levels through Waco's Independent School District.
An initiative developed by Baylor University as part of a $6 million federal grant called GEAR UP Waco, Project Democracy is specifically designed to enhance the academic performance of at-risk students -- not necessarily the student population most likely to enter debate.
Headed by Dr. Karla Leeper, associate professor of communication studies and director of the Glenn R. Capp Debate Forum at Baylor, Project Democracy introduces debate skills such as researching, writing, speaking, critical thinking, and problem-solving to students by utilizing the resources and experience of Baylor's nationally prominent debate program. In doing so, the expectation is that the scholastic performance of at-risk students will improve, as will their opportunities to pursue higher education.
The idea behind Project Democracy, then, is simple: Take a group of kids, with backgrounds and socioeconomic conditions that ordinarily indicate they are at risk of dropping out of school, believe in them, and see what happens. This is what I have had the privilege of doing for the past two years first as a volunteer with the program and now as its coordinator.
In fall 1999, Dr. Leeper told me about Project Democracy and asked me to work with teachers, administrators, and, most importantly, students to begin a debate team at G.W. Carver Academy, a local public middle school.
I was very excited to be given this opportunity. I did not know that the debate team I was about to begin would be radically different from the ones I had known during my high school and college years. Not only are the students younger, most are from racial minorities, many live in poverty, and many are not considered high academic achievers. Given these statistics, Project Democracy seemed destined for failure.
What the demographic predictors leave out is that these students are unique and creative individuals; and, like all other children, they dream their own versions of the American dream. Chaz wants to be a judge, Erica wants to own a child care center, and Ahandrika wants to be a computer technician. For these students and many others, their hopes will be difficult to achieve in the face of the stark socioeconomic barriers they face.
Project Democracy tries to make some of those dreams a reality by teaching students to think, speak, and write effectively before they reach high school. These skills enhance the students' abilities to perform well both in and outside of the classroom, thereby increasing their chances of attending college. More important, the students learn to use effective and well-chosen words to make their arguments. Project Democracy began at Carver but now is in six other Waco middle schools.
Our original team consisted of three Carver teachers -- Deborah Burkes, Christy Cunningham, and Sandra Gibson -- and 60 students, 30 each from sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. Mary Duty, another Carver teacher and a Baylor alumnus, offered her classroom as a permanent place for us to work. Carver principal Roxanne Bass and GEAR UP Waco project director Matthew Williams also were helpful.
Within a few months our program began to attract attention. The local news media began to tell our story and many people came to watch the team debate, including U.S. Rep. Chet Edwards, Texas State Rep. Jim Dunnam, and local school board members. Other notable accomplishments were:
• The students participated in a debate hosted by the U.S. Joint Commission on Presidential Debates in October 2000 and had the opportunity to present from a podium used by five U.S. presidents.
• They gave a demonstration debate at the National Collegiate Debate Tournament in March at Baylor.
• They were invited to meet Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Texas State Speaker of the House James E. "Pete" Laney.
• The Baylor Debate Team provided several Carver students with scholarships to attend Baylor's summer debate institute.
The most exciting news of all came in September: the Carver students were invited by executives in the U.S. Department of Education who had heard about Project Democracy to Washington, D.C. The Carver debate team members will demonstrate their skills at the national GEAR UP Conference this summer, and Dr. Leeper and I will present the benefits of providing disadvantaged children with opportunities to participate in extracurricular academic activities such as debate.
What began as a group of students lacking confidence, direction, and strong educational backgrounds has grown into a unified team determined to achieve greatness, individually and collectively. Anyone can talk about the American dream, but providing resources so that all children can attain their dreams is what Project Democracy does.
Two years ago I never would have believed that this group of students would be transformed into a nationally recognized, policy-influencing body. I have learned never to say never.

Perryman is a senior, B.A. in philosophy/economics.
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