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Hub debaters to vie for national crown

Tierney McAfee
Hub debaters to vie for national crown
Members of the Academy of Public Service debate team meet Nate Parker, one of the stars of the Denzel Washington film “The Great Debaters,” at the 2008 Urban Debate League National Championship. (From left): Julio Lanzo, Parker, Tyrell Carter, coach Locksley Bryan. (Photo: Boston Public Schools)

Josiah Quincy Upper School junior Jason Mak and Academy of Public Service junior Julio Lanzo are two of four students who will represent the Boston Public Schools at this weekend’s Chase Urban Debate National Championship in Chicago. (Photo courtesy of Boston Public Schools)

High school senior Frezzella Cullinane’s love of debate grew from another of her passions — free food.

Cullinane joined the debate team at Josiah Quincy Upper School (JQUS) at the suggestion of her history teacher, Richard Chang, who also serves as the school’s debate coach. She said she continued her participation for “all the wrong reasons,” namely the complimentary munchies, and that she was “bored” the majority of the time.

After several meetings, Chang told Cullinane that she would have to attend a debate if she wanted to stay enrolled in the club. She agreed. The debate changed Cullinane’s life.

“I just got really intrigued by the debate and how it was structured,” she said. “After I had seen one for myself, I was really excited about debate and I wanted to be in one myself. So I started studying and paying attention in practice, and it’s really paid off.”

Cullinane said that her involvement in debate has improved almost every aspect of her academic life, and has had an impact on her personal life as well.

“It’s helped my reading skills, my ability to break things down and analyze them,” Cullinane said. “I have a better understanding of different topics. It’s broadened my vocabulary, helped my grades.”

Most importantly, Cullinane said, it taught her to “stay faithful to an activity.”

“It’s helped build character in me. I had never really stuck with anything before, and when I stuck with it, I became good at it,” she said. “I have drive and passion for something. It’s fulfilling.”

Cullinane’s hard work will pay off this weekend when she and three other Boston Public Schools students compete in the prestigious Chase Urban Debate National Championship in Chicago, beginning Thursday, April 23, and running through Sunday, April 26.

The tournament, held by the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues (NAUDL), features top competitors from more than 20 Urban Debate Leagues from major cities around the country. It is sponsored by the JPMorgan Chase Foundation.

The NAUDL typically invites only one school from each urban debate league, but in special cases they invite two, according to Steve Stein, the executive director of the Boston Debate League. This year, Boston Public Schools (BPS) will send two schools to the competition, with two-person teams representing both JQUS, located in Chinatown/South End, and the Academy of Public Service (APS) in the Dorchester Education Complex.

“I think [the NAUDL] are pretty impressed with what we’ve done this year,” Stein said. “We’ve gotten a ton of support from Boston Public Schools. I think [the NAUDL] looks at us as a league that’s on the go and a league that has a lot of potential to do great things in Boston.”

The Boston Debate League has already come a long way from its 2004 origins, when it was created by a group of volunteers, with four participating schools. In 2008, BPS Superintendent Dr. Carol R. Johnson, pledged district funding for the league, which has expanded to include eight BPS schools.

“We are so proud of these students and know they will represent Boston well in the national championship,” Johnson said. “Competitive academic debate cultivates the critical thinking and communications skills, and helps build the confidence that students will need to succeed in college and career.”

At the championship, students will debate this year’s issue, alternative energy technologies. The four students have pre-researched both the affirmative and negative sides of the issue, since they don’t know in advance which aspect of the topics they will be called upon to debate. Luckily, they’ve mastered contesting the question over the course of the school year.

The team of Tyrell Carter and Julio Lanzo, both Dorchester natives and juniors at APS, achieved the best record during the Boston Debate League’s regular season, finishing with the Varsity City Championship title and assuring themselves a coveted spot at the national debate. Cullinane and JQUS junior Jason Mak defeated seven of the best teams in the league in a special round robin tournament to nab the second spot in nationals.

Carter and Lanzo are no strangers to the national debate. The APS pair, which boasts the highest overall scores from the school year, also competed in last year’s championship, earning a spot in the elite eight.

But for Carter, eight isn’t elite enough for this year.

“Hopefully this year I want to take third or fourth place at the very least, but I’m shooting for first,” he said.

Confidence is just one of the qualities debating has instilled in Carter.

“Being on the debate team, I’ve discovered my love for reading and my thirst for knowledge,” he said. “There’s so much information out there that I want to retain and use in my daily life that the debate team has helped me learn.”

Stein says many students enjoy debate because they feel the topics are more relevant to their lives than some lessons they may encounter in the classroom. For example, last year’s debate topic was whether the U.S. should give medical aid to Africa to help the continent combat AIDS, while next year’s subject will be poverty.

“It makes me feel really good that a whole lot of kids are able to argue about issues that our politicians are debating right now,” Carter said.

His partner Lanzo agrees.

“What I like about debate the most is that I’m learning about what’s going on in the government and discussing cases that are being debated at a national level,” he said.

Lanzo, who received a scholarship to attend a summer debate camp at Emory University in Atlanta, also hopes to make it to the competition’s final four this year.

He said he believes the key to succeeding in debate is “making sure I know the biggest weaknesses of my case and making them my greatest strengths.”

APS debate coach Locksley Bryan says the greatest thing about debate is that it “opens [the students’] minds,” because “they have to be able and ready to argue both sides of any argument.”

Mak, who said he strongly believes the U.S. should increase alternative energy incentives, finds it particularly difficult to argue the negative side of this year’s issue.

“It is a challenge because I’m so for [using alternative energies], but I have to win by going against what I believe,” Mak said. “But since I’m so for it, I understand both sides of the case very well, so I might have a better edge in knowing what my opponent is going to say.”

The championship’s top performers will be awarded trophies and $10,000 in scholarships to colleges and summer debate institutes at the Annual Dinner and Awards Ceremony, held at the historic Art Institute of Chicago.

Win or lose, though, the students won’t walk home empty-handed.

“Debate is an activity that students feel they can take ownership of,” said Stein of the Boston Debate League. “When you challenge students, I find they rise to that challenge because sometimes they’re hungry for challenges they aren’t getting in school. That’s why debate is really rewarding to them.”