Why It Matters

In Silicon Valley, one of the hotbeds of innovation and wealth in the United States, thousands of students drop out of school or fall through the cracks without the chance to develop their talents. Despite numerous programs at struggling schools in Silicon Valley, thousands of students are still left without the skills and motivation to prepare for a rewarding career.  In the 32 high schools in SVUDL's target group, more than 30,000 youth in San Jose and the Peninsula struggle to gain vital life and career skills. 

Their need is critical: nearly 65% of high school students from East Palo Alto drop out and less than 10% of graduates attend a four-year college. Only one in four students in East Side San Jose – only 12% of Latino youth – graduate eligible to attend colleges in the CSU and UC systems. 

The national conversation on career development and 21st century skills has generated a mandate for programs that help all students build mastery in creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration, and communication. For low-income students, overcrowded classrooms and traditional educational approaches have not met this need. Seeking a rigorous program that inspires students to excel, many schools have turned to competitive policy debate.

The trouble with debate as historically practiced is that it has served only a small population of very privileged students. Since 1987, urban debate leagues have worked with hundreds of teachers and over 30,000 students to open debate to new populations through two primary innovations: 

  • Reaching populations in need: among roughly 7,300 urban debaters now active, over 85% are students of color and over 75% are low-income students

  • Growing large programs: urban debate teams involve as many as 150 students at each school in the core program of competitive debate, and hundreds more through classroom outreach

Using these innovations – and taking the best tools and strategies from 21 other Urban Debate Leagues – we at SVUDL see a tremendous opportunity to bring the skills and career connections developed in debate to at-risk youth in Silicon Valley public schools. In the process, we aim to address a lack of programs that motivate students who are disengaged from high school to develop 21st century skills, graduate, and find career success. 

Debate helps students to improve literacy fundamentals such as reading fluency, accuracy and comprehension, as well as public speaking. Watch this video to see the impact of debate in classrooms.