DALLAS — In 2007, Dawn Budner and her husband formed the Dallas Urban Debate Alliance.
Dawn’s husband debated at Dartmouth College and he wanted to bring his love of the activity to Dallas Independent School District campuses that didn't have programs.
Since then, Budner has seen the program expand to 39 DISD schools. She says it is literally changing the lives of the students who participate.
“To go from these kids who may not care about going to college, to kids that we see now, that are passionate about debating," Budner said. "A lot of them say, 'I didn’t care about going to college, but now I want to go to college so that I can debate.'”
Sunset High School senior Erick Alonso, 18, is one of those kids.
Prior to joining Sunset’s debate team, he admits he was less than enthusiastic about school, and didn’t see himself going beyond possibly attending community college.
“Before debate, I never really thought about what I wanted my career to be; it was just floating around in the air," he said. "But after debate, I knew that I wanted to get my master's in political science.”
Debate combines public speaking, writing, and researching skills. In class on Wednesday, Alonso demonstrated his rapid-fire delivery. It’s a skill debaters use to present as many arguments about a topic as possible in just minutes.
In this case, Alonso argued that the United States government should substantially increase its investment in transportation infrastructure in the U.S. The topic is a serious and complicated policy issue that he and his partner spent hours researching.
Erick's coach, Michelle Read, said he has come a long way.
“I literally forced him to go to the first tournament. I said it was great and he had to go," she recalled. "He’s went to every tournament since then and he’s been highly successful.”
Ninety percent of Dallas Urban Debaters qualify for free or reduced lunch. Many of them attend schools that have high dropout rates, but more than 70 percent of debaters go on to college versus non-debaters.
Besides wanting to attend college, Alonso said debate made him more interested in school in general.
“I was like, 'Debate is going to take me somewhere,' and so I decided to more involved in school,” he said. “My grades have substantially increased — from getting like C's and D’s to now getting nothing but A’s and B’s.”
Debate took Alonso and one other DISD team to a national tournament in Washington D.C. It was his first time on an airplane and his first trip outside of Texas.
Alonzo has won trophies and scholarships for debate. He plans to study politics at the University of North Texas, become a lobbyist, and live and work in the nation’s capital.
“I never really thought I would be able to fly to places, be able to be in prestigious tournaments and stuff," Alonso said. "Before debate, I just saw myself here in Dallas for the rest of my life.”
Alonso’s success is clearly making the argument for competitive debate, and Budner says DUDA is actively recruiting more schools for the program.