New SVUDL Partner Schools and Programs Part 6: Downtown College Prep El Primero High School San Jose

Downtown College Prep El Primero High School

By Amy McElroy

On the East Side of San Jose, the Silicon Valley Urban Debate League (SVUDL) recently collaborated with Downtown College Prep El Primero High School (DCP) to create a new debate program. DCP focuses on the need to educate and nurture students to become the first generation in their families to attend and graduate from college. This high school, guiding underserved students to and through college, is precisely the kind of place SVUDL believes debate should thrive.

Head Coach of the new debate team Andrea Fazel said: “DCP is committed to preparing first generation students for college success, and debate is absolutely part of that vision!” Fazel is a second-year teacher of English, Government, and Law at DCP—where curriculum trains students in independent learning, problem-solving, and critical thinking. Debate offers an opportunity to amplify those skills. “Students are engaging in high-level thinking, wrestling with complex issues, and using their voice to speak out,” Fazel said. “All of this will help our students be more confident and successful in college and beyond.”

DCP’s model highlights the connection between college and a student’s ability to change the world. The model states, in part, that “DCP fosters opportunities for critical self-discovery through our College Success Framework that addresses the academic, college and socio-emotional needs of every student. We work to offer students both traditional and innovative opportunities to be well-rounded college applicants and change-makers.”

Fazel believes the alignment between the missions at DCP and SVUDL demonstrates the benefit of this partnership: “Both DCP and SVUDL are committed to making sure doors of opportunity stay open for our students, and build student confidence that they belong anywhere that important decisions are being made.”

DCP creates an environment with free, college prep curriculum. This basic foundation is supplemented with Pre-College Enrichment summer programs and internships. The school begins introducing diverse college options in 5th grade and employs counselors who assist every student in completing the college application process. DCP also engages families in the college selection process, with detailed financial aid assistance. The school’s Broad Alumni Success program includes counseling, networking, financial and other types of support services during college.

Since its founding in 2004, DCP has operated on a similar guiding principle as SVUDL—that “DCP graduates must surmount challenges both academic and personal to become the first in their family to graduate from college (emphasis added).” The school has a tremendous track record of helping their students meet those obstacles. “DCP alumni have among the highest rates of college matriculation and are four times more likely to graduate from college than their peers nationwide,” according to the school’s data. DCP attributes its ongoing success to a set of central guiding “values – ganas [desire to succeed], comunidad, [community] and orgullo [pride].”

After 17 years of teaching experience, Fazel recently said: “I love working at DCP because there is nothing quite so energizing as being part of a community that is so mission-driven. Watching students get excited about their futures and come to believe in their own futures keeps me excited to teach!” Recognized as the 2016 Street Law Educator of the Year, Fazel graduated from UC Davis King Hall School of Law, where she competed nationally in Moot Court competitions, and won a national civil rights moot court competition. Throughout her career, Fazel has worked to bring together her passions for law and education. “I have worked in schools with a similar mission,” she said, “ensuring college success for all students, and in particular, increasing the diversity of the pipeline into law-related careers.” 

SVUDL’s team liaison for DCP, Rob Burns said Fazel’s combined teaching and legal background makes her a perfect fit for this partnership. According to Burns, Fazel “really cares and understands” the deeper goals of the program.

Their mutual respect is one reason this partnership flourishes. As a teacher new to competitive debate, Fazel said Burns provides her with “invaluable” assistance. “I am so grateful for Rob's support in developing a new debate program at DCP,” Fazel said. “He brings so much enthusiasm and passion for debate, and fires up students to push themselves beyond what they thought their limits were.”

Burns explained that the current debate topic, immigration, connects on a personal level to many students at DCP—with a demographic that is 96 percent Latino. The students have a wealth of knowledge about the subject matter already, even before they begin any research. Despite his extensive background coaching debate in underserved communities, Burns said he’s learning a great deal from the students who share stories from their community. For debaters at DCP, he said, “The importance of what we’re discussing takes on a whole other level of sharpness and importance.”

Already this fall, DCP students have employed their newly developed skills in competitive settings. DCP fielded three teams at the first SVUDL tournament of the season, and one student placed in the top five speakers in his first tournament experience.

Following a November event, Burns said, “I am very proud of our freshmen. Each team was able to win their first varsity debate round, and had the opportunity to face some of the best debaters in our region. They look forward to continuing to develop their skills, and can't wait for the next tournament!”

According to Fazel, “We now have an energized debate club, and Rob has been so generous with his time and energy to support the students who are showing a passion for debate. As far as I'm concerned, the sky's the limit for this partnership!”


New SVUDL Partner Schools and Programs Part 5: Yerba Buena High School San Jose

Yerba Buena San Jose

By Amy McElroy

Under the leadership of head coach Rob Burns, the Silicon Valley Urban Debate League (SVUDL) recently teamed up with Yerba Buena San Jose (YBSJ) to create the school’s first debate program. YBSJ is located in East San Jose, where the student body is primarily comprised of people of color and more than two thirds are economically disadvantaged. The school emphasizes college readiness by preparing its students to excel on college boards and Advanced Placement (AP) tests. Having coached in diverse settings over the course of two decades, Burns understands how debate can help prepare students—not only for these types of academic exams, but also for future career opportunities.

According to Burns, debate teaches students to “examine and analyze texts in critically high pressure situations.” He explained that “[i]n a world of high stakes testing,” debate is the perfect preparation for reading, analyzing, and responding to texts in a detailed way—using “evidence based argumentation.” Overall, Burns believes debate “prepares students for the SAT and AP tests in a way that no other extracurricular does.”

Those same skills learned in debate will carry students beyond college admittance, into college level coursework. “As I’ve told principals and others at the school,” Burns said, “the more students are involved with debate, the more prepared they will be for college.” As a former high school debater who attended college on a debate scholarship, he describes participation in debate as “unparalleled” when it comes to college readiness.

Burns began his coaching career as an assistant during college at Liberty University and Wheaton College. But since that time, he said, “I’ve worked a lot with urban students and in urban contexts.” And he’s done so with great success. For instance, at North Star Academy in Newark, he coached two New Jersey Novice State Champions and the first varsity policy team in New Jersey history to win the prestigious Harvard debates. Last year, two of his teams finished as quarterfinalists and octafinalists at the 2018 Tournament of Champions.  

In this new partnership, Burns said, “I try to present debate in a way that can connect with the students at Yerba Buena.” He noted the multi-racial population and the economic challenges confronting many of the students. Because of his past work in similar environments, he’s able to connect with YBSJ’s student body. He draws on his experience working with students facing the same “logistical and practical issues that [YBSJ’s] students face.”

Burns coaches alongside a faculty advisor in the newly-formed, after-school debate program. “I really just love the teacher that I’m working with, Michael Low,” Burns said. “He does an excellent job of not lowering expectations. He expects that students will be able to understand complex ideas.” As a result, Burns explained, “The students are all willing to take on complex issues and do the reading. It’s not always easy to get students to take on issues of race or cultural issues. But there’s a culture [Low has] created that encourages them to take on difficult social issues.”

According to Burns, the larger culture surrounding YBSJ is also supportive of the students and fosters the success of the SVUDL partnership. He specifically noted: “the interest of the community in the school, the huge new community center, and the parents—who are great.” At YBSJ, Burns values what he sees as “the best of public education, when it’s connected to community, as well.”  

In Burns’ view, the overall objectives of SVUDL and YBSJ align well to create opportunities. In particular, YBSJ’s mission to create a “safe accepting and motivating academic environment that challenges and empowers its diverse population…” to “be prepared to successfully participate in society” echoes Burn’s primary goals for the debate program.

On a fundamental level, through SVUDL, Burns strives to promote success among diverse students in the legal field. “We want to increase participation of students of color in law and politics,” he said. “Part of the work really advances that goal because there are a lot of women of color” who make up a majority of YBSJ’s debate program who are “really getting interested in issues of asylum law.” Then, when they go to tournaments, students learn skills and make connections to the legal community, which help advance their careers.

But Burns sees a secondary goal to debate, related to the obstacles that these underserved students face. He spoke of the need to bridge barriers of financing and opportunity through scholarships and academic achievement. He also addressed students’ mental and emotional barriers: the way students perceive government has treated them, and their natural and legitimate suspicion toward the law. In the context of debate, Burns explained, “We give students the opportunity to reflect on things they feel rightfully angry or skeptical about.” With respect to hurdles faced by students at YBSJ, he said, “Debate attacks many of those varying factors at once.”

Burns wants to show his students how to “use law and policy to transform their world instead of seeing it as something done to them—to convince them of their own agency.” Only then will many of these students “envision themselves as future lawyers and policymakers.” But he believes we can “close the gap through debate.” According to Burns, “The most important thing is that students recognize they have a voice that belongs in the halls of power—that they imagine themselves as belonging there. That law and politics is not a natural disaster that happens to them, but something that they can have a voice in.”

With Low’s help, Burns hopes to grow the SVUDL partnership at YBSJ. “The more students I can get interested in debate, the more I can fulfill that goal—connecting to those students, and helping them envision themselves in these fields.”


New SVUDL Partner Schools and Organizations Part 4: KIPP San Jose Collegiate

New SVUDL Partner Schools and Organizations for the 2018-19 School Year

Part 4: KIPP San Jose Collegiate
By Amy McElroy

This year, Silicon Valley Urban Debate League (SVUDL) has partnered with KIPP San Jose Collegiate (KSJC) to create new opportunities for students. Across the Bay Area and the nation, KIPP schools are grounded in the idea of generating more choices for young people in underserved communities. KSJC invested in its students; the school maintains a 90 percent college matriculation rate and a comprehensive long-term outreach program. Through debate, SVUDL is helping KSJC students hone their skills and perspectives as they work toward their chosen career paths.

With significant background teaching at KIPP schools and coaching with Urban Debate League (UDL) programs, Kim Vo is distinctively qualified to guide the students in this partnership. After receiving a Master’s degree from Columbia University, Vo began her debate coaching career at the Atlanta Urban Debate League (AUDL) while teaching at a local school there. After two years, she began teaching at KIPP Atlanta Collegiate where she created a debate team. That year, the team won the urban city championship and Vo received the AUDL’s Coach of the Year Award.

Now at KSJC—where Vo teaches World History and AP World History and serves as the Chair of the History Department—her debate legacy follows her. “When I moved to San Jose three years ago,” she said, “two students who debated in middle school asked me to start a debate team at (KSJC) after hearing about my experiences in Atlanta.” She did so, and allowed them to acquire experience competing in debate. “This is their first year participating in SVUDL,” Vo said.

Through debate, students gain essential critical thinking skills, which KSJC places foremost in its curriculum. “We do a lot of Socratic Seminars and argumentative claims and writing” in the classroom, Vo explained. “Debate fits in well because it teaches students to research, understand all POVs and perspectives, make claims and find evidence to support their claim.” 

Teaching KSJC students to debate inspires Vo. “The students I teach are wonderful people,” she said. “They are caring, passionate, and motivated individuals who recognize the oppression and injustices in the world.” She is grateful for the opportunity to coach students who “aspire to become active citizens by advocating for members of their community.” 

Vo’s experience teaching debate at KSJC lines up with the school’s mission that its “graduates will use their education and life experiences to make positive change in their own lives, within the East San Jose community, and among our global society.”

Part of the school’s strategy for achieving this lifetime of change includes long-term outreach that extends through college and beyond. During high school, students receive focused guidance in all areas of college readiness through academic preparation, counseling, standardized test prep, college tours, application assistance, and even college savings through 529 accounts. Transitional support into college provides individual counseling to answer questions and provide emotional guidance. The KIPP Through College Program offers individual advising through on-campus visits, an alumni internship program, career development programs, and strong college partnerships to ensure not only college recruiting but retention, graduation, and entry into the working world.

This early pipeline approach resembles the SVUDL model for helping more underserved students succeed through high school, college, and find success in their chosen careers. SVUDL debate and mentor programs start at the high school level, with those mentors continuing to offer their guidance and support through college and law school.

According to Brandon Brown, a member of SVUDL’s Legal Advisory Committee and a partner at Kirkland & Ellis: “[O]ne of the best ways to ensure our law schools have a diverse population of exceptional candidates is to ensure that diverse high school students feel they can head in that direction. SVUDL does that by encouraging voices and empowering the disenfranchised.”

Vo has been a strong mentor for KSJC’s racially diverse population. In particular, she explained: “As a POC who represents 30% of my student population, I feel that more Asian students want to participate because we are breaking the stereotype that Asian students are quiet and are subservient.”

Overall, Vo sees the debate program blossoming at KSJC. “I love seeing my students find their voice and be passionate about their arguments.” She hopes the partnership with SVUDL will create more opportunities for KSJC students to debate. She finds “[w]hen students participate in the tournaments, they become more invested and want to debate more.” Vo hopes the debate program at KSJC will take on a life of its own that will survive long after she’s left the school someday.

Through this partnership with KSJC, SVUDL is proud to help promote one of the school’s highest values: options. At this Title I, urban school, Vo found “debate offers students choices—a choice to become more involved in school, a choice to build a community with their peers, a choice to sacrifice their weekends to participate in the tournaments, a choice to learn what skills they can learn from debate, a choice of what career or schools they want to attend.”

SVUDL Fall Season Tournament Opener Results 10-13-18

70 SVUDL Debaters participated in our first fall tournament on Saturday, October 13, 2018. Click this link to watch a video of the students arriving!

30 students participated in the Varsity rounds; top varsity honors went to the team of Jasleen Randhawa and Christina Vo from Silver Creek High School in San Jose and to top speaker Osvaldo Mendoza from KIPP San Jose Collegiate in San Jose.

40 students participated in the Novice rounds; top novice honors went to the team of Dania Fermin and Sofia Funk from Cristo Rey San Jose Jesuit High School and Sofia Funk was also the top Novice speaker.

Here are all of the results from the tournament:

Varsity Policy 15 entries - 30 students total

KIPP San Jose Collegiate - 5

Oak Grove - 1

Silver Creek - 9

1st  - Jasleen Randhawa and Christina Vo - Silver Creek

2nd- Daksh Jain and Pranav Singamsetty - Silver Creek

3rd-Osvaldo Mendoza and Celine De Villa - Kipp

4th- Avi Goel and Rutvik Gandhasri - Silver Creek

5th - Sandy Ouk and Tiffany Tran - Silver Creek

Varsity Top Speaker - Osvaldo Mendoza - KIPP San Jose Collegiate

Novice  21 entries - 40 students total

College Track - 1

Cristo Ray - 4

DCP - 3

Kipp - 4

Oak Grove - 1

Oxford Day  -2

Yerba Buena - 6

1st - Dania Fermin and Sofia Funk - Cristo Rey

2nd - Moises Ron-Lopez and Andre Pham - KIPP San Jose Collegiate

3rd - Vanessa Gudino  and Mateo Diaz - Cristo Rey

4th - Zariah Best and Kastella Nguyen - Yerba Buena 

5th - Paulina Guiterrez Carmona & Jules Thomas - College Track

Novice Top Speaker - Sofia Funk - Cristo Rey

SVUDL wishes to thank Santa Clara University (SCU) for hosting us and our judges for the event (*=SVUDL alumnus, **=SVUDL board member): 
Saya Abney
Isaiah Aguirre*
Antonia Barona*
Dan Barritt
Jim Basile**
David Cattivera
Luis Cruz
James Davis
Alan Fishman
Alma Ibok
Raghav Kaul
Michael Low
Ryan Mills
Brandon Montes*
Peter Otte
Alexander Rafi
Marybelle Uk*
Harold Wang
Kenneth Woods
Stanley Young

New SVUDL Partner Schools and Organizations for the 2018-19 School Year

Part 3: Summit Public Schools, Rainier Campus, San Jose with Summit Head Debate Coach Aileen George and SVUDL Coach Liaison and Head Coach Jimi Morales By Amy McElroy

One of Silicon Valley Urban Debate League’s (SVUDL’s) seven new partner schools, Summit Rainier, was founded in 2011 by a group of parents from East San Jose seeking a high quality education for their students. Together, SVUDL and Rainier will continue to deliver on the school’s commitment to outstanding academic achievement and college prep in this diverse environment. SVUDL will help create even more opportunities for students at Rainier—which already ranks in the top 20 schools in Santa Clara County, with a proud tradition of admitting 100 percent of its students to four year colleges.

Aileen George, the school’s new Dean of Instruction and Culture, said, “[W]e offer a wide variety of clubs to address our diverse population and their interests.” George, who also serves as Head Debate Coach, explained: “Here at Rainier, debate is an after-school activity” and said “coaching debate is the happiest part of my experience as an educator.” Deeply invested in coaching, she added, “As a debate coach for the last 7 years, it has meant so much to me to see the impact this activity has on students.”

Like other coaches at SVUDL, over time George has witnessed profound changes occur for debaters: “I've watched children come out of their shells, become more confident, and transform over the course of a debate season. I've seen students cry during their first practice from nerves grow to become city-wide champions. I've seen students with speech impediments who struggled socially become the most dynamic and popular kid on the competition circuit.” 

A similar kind of transformation happened for Rainier’s SVUDL coach liaison Jimi Morales. Morales learned the value of debate when it helped him find purpose in high school and overcome a troubling stammer. He placed in the top 21 in the National Forensics League (NFL) Nationals and later received the Williams/Sloane Collin Passionate Public Speaking Prize for Social Justice, while on full scholarship as a first-generation college student at Williams College. Since that time, Morales has coached debate in summer programs, high schools, and as a private instructor. At Rainier, he’s now thriving in a role that allows him to help debaters with backgrounds similar to his own.

Both Morales and George work with students to improve critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills—all of which are fundamental to Rainier’s project-based learning curriculum. George said her participation as a student debater taught her these skills, directly affecting the trajectory of her career: “Debate gave me presentation skills that helped me flourish as a teacher, interviewer, workshop leader, and professional.”

Another aspect of Rainier’s curriculum focuses on imitating real-world experiences in work-like settings. SVUDL’s debate program provides students the opportunity to argue topical, real-world issues in moot court settings—sometimes in front of actual judges.

The SVUDL debate model provides the type of mentors Rainier values so highly, to guide and support students as they achieve their college and career goals. In line with the school’s goals, debate will help many of its curious students find the type of passion that drives them to a successful and fulfilling life.

George said, “Debate has played a huge role in my life and I believe, without any doubts, that it was the extra-curricular that impacted my success in adulthood the most.” In high school, she became a competitive debate champion and qualified for nationals. Later, she became a member of the DC Urban Debate League, coached high school debate, and won the league’s Coach of the Year award in 2016.

George’s experience with diverse populations and Morales’ own background and history as a coach make them the right choice to lead the partnership between Rainier and SVUDL. George comes to this position ready to teach students “with a wide range of abilities while still helping everyone find success in their own way.”

“I love working with students who are in an environment that allows students to be unapologetically themselves. Here at Rainier, we strive to create a culture that allows students to feel safe and supported,” George explained. “As a result, my new debate team, even in its infancy, is showing these values.” She said the students “are enthusiastic to debate about immigration and have been extremely supportive of each other in having thoughtful discussions.” 

According to George, “SVUDL, like many UDLs, was created as a space for students in local public schools to gain competitive skills and diverse experiences,” She envisions “this partnership will lead to experiences for students that builds them up and gives them a sense of success and commitment that helps them as young adults.”

New SVUDL Partner Schools and Organizations for the 2018-19 School Year

Part 2: College Track and SVUDL Head Coach Kwodwo Moore

By Amy McElroy

College Track, located in East Palo Alto, is more than just another after-school program for underserved students. This comprehensive college prep and support system has helped 95 percent of its high school seniors gain admission to four-year colleges, and more than doubling the national average of college graduation rates for first generation and low-income students. This year, SVUDL and Head Coach Kwodo Moore have teamed up to bring debate to this ambitious organization.

Moore himself shows what the urban debate program can do, having joined the Bay Area Urban Debate League (BAUDL) team as a high school junior and thrived as a public speaker during its Leading With Debate Fellowship. As a freshman at CSU East Bay, Kwodwo volunteered to coach his high school team to save it from vanishing after losing its coach. Coach Moore led the team to great success.

During his Sophomore year at CSU East Bay, he became one of the very first SVUDL volunteers, helping recruit students, running workshops and judging tournaments in East Palo Alto. He taught the next two summers for SVUDL’s Summer Institute. After graduating with a B.A. in Philosophy and receiving the Bassen Award for Philosophy for the second year in a row, Moore was hired as a Head Coach at SVUDL in the fall of 2017.

Like SVUDL, Moore believes College Track strives to provide students strong intellectual and political engagement with the world. As a concrete way to achieve this, College Track sees its role as helping students succeed in college and go on to successful careers. Part of College Track’s mission states: “Creating a pipeline of college graduates from underserved communities is critical to closing the opportunity gap in this country and unlocking the full potential of our nation’s next generation.” Similarly, an article featured in Inside Counsel, How Leading Companies Are Prioritizing Diversity Early in the Pipeline,” makes the case for debate programs like SVUDL as successful career pipelines.

One unique aspect of College Track is that all students are already invested in their own professional futures—thanks to the support of College Track. Co-founders Laurene Powell Jobs and Carlos Watson were working as advisors in East Palo schools when they discovered students who aspired to become first generation college students didn’t have the guidance, personal attention, and the classes they needed to gain acceptance to California State universities.

As a result, the co-founders created College Track: “a comprehensive after-school program that focuses on academics, student life, leadership, and getting into college, and works with students beginning as high school freshman and continuing through their college careers and beyond.” SVUDL mirrors this long-term commitment, which is based on the idea that underserved students are often financially and emotionally unprepared for college. That’s why College Track provides academic, financial, and social and emotional support and advice from senior year to beyond college graduation. Its representatives visit students on their college campuses and provide alumni networking to guide them through the best decisions possible for their futures careers. Since the East Palo Alto campus opened in in 1997, several other College Track locations have spread throughout the country to serve thousands of students and college graduates.

College Track’s success stems, in part, from a comprehensive academic model including tutoring, workshops and seminars, one-to-one case management, significant ACT prep, study groups supported by expert tutors, and specialized Study Squads for struggling students. There’s an expectation to maintain a 3.0 G.P.A. and sufficient ACT scores for college entrance. This is supplemented by community service and extracurricular activity in what’s called “Student Life.” And this is where SVUDL’s debate program fits in.

Moore said the students’ commitment to the debate program makes working with students at College Track particularly rewarding. First, he says, “Students have proactively sought and chose to be a part of debate. Then, the organization is suggesting to them to debate. And because the students are already committed to going to college, there’s a level of buy-in that already exists.”

In addition, the structure of the organization is set up with a great deal of accountability and incentives for students, such as scholarships based on participation in community service hours, extracurricular activities, and attendance at certain meetings. As a result, it’s much easier to get support and encouragement from both parents and other students. “I don’t have to chase parents down for permission slips,” Moore said, and it’s easier for students to find rides to tournaments. College Track allows SVUDL to be an integral part of their program “without over-leveraging ourselves” Moore said.

There’s also a broader sense in which College Track allows SVUDL to reach its goals more efficiently, according to Moore. At other schools, only a certain percentage of the participants would land in the target demographic—even in a school with a high percentage of underserved students. However, at College Track “100 of students of the program are in target demographic” Moore explained, “even if we only teach a small number of students.”

But Moore expects even those numbers to change for the better. ”What I see happening is a developing culture of students in debate, teaching them to do really well, and motivating other students to join.” Gradually, he believes SVUDL will “reach a greater number of students in a meaningful way.”

SVUDL Fall Season Tournament Opener on Saturday, October 13 and Call for Volunteer Judges*

Come and see SVUDL in action and volunteer as a judge at our SVUDL Fall Season Tournament Opener on Saturday, October 13.

This tournament will be held at Santa Clara University (455 El Camino Real, Santa Clara, CA 95053) on Saturday, October 13th from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm (breakfast and lunch provided).

Judge volunteers are needed for each round, and highest need for all three rounds.
Round 1 @ 9:45am; Round 2 @ 11:45am; and Round 3 @ 2:30pm

*NO EXPERIENCE IS NECESSARY TO VOLUNTEER AS A JUDGE (Volunteer Judge training will be provided prior to Round 1)

Sign Up Here

Questions? Contact Janet Escobedo  or Net Manuel

SVUDL Team Wins Stewart Invitational Tournament in September 2018

The Stewart Invitational is a local tournament that gives SVUDL students the opportunity to compete against highly skilled debaters. During the last weekend of September, one of our Silver Creek High School debate teams, coached by Jimi Morales, won the championship!

The SVUDL teams went undefeated in qualifying rounds (one of only two teams to do so) and ultimately defeated the top-seeded team on their way to winning the tournament. And, one of the SVUDL debaters won the 2nd best speaker award for the full tournament.

Congratulations team SVUDL!

New SVUDL Partner Schools and Organizations for the 2018-19 School Year

Part 1: Cristo Rey San Jose Jesuit High School and Meet New SVUDL Head Coach Robert Burns

By Amy McElroy

This fall, the Silicon Valley Urban Debate League (SVUDL) celebrates going back to school by highlighting our new partner schools and a new head coach. The first of these is Cristo Rey San Jose Jesuit High School, located at 1349 East Santa Clara Street in San Jose. The talented staff led by principal Joe Albers, provides college prep academics and professional internships to students in underserved communities.

According to Cristo Rey Board member and SVUDL’s own Board Chair Willie Hernandez, “SVUDL is reaching students from these same communities and teaching critical skills of analytical thinking, argument and communication.” Hernandez, Vice President and Deputy General Counsel of the Legal Department at HPE, said, “It is an honor to bring these two organizations together through this partnership and I look forward to seeing their work together elevate the life success of these young future leaders.”

 Hernandez is joined on the board of Cristo Rey by an impressive list of educators, business people, civic and clerical leaders, and those experienced working with at-risk youth.

The Mission of the larger Cristo Rey Network of 35 schools to “transform urban America one student at a time” dovetails with the SVUDL’s own mission statement: “Through the rigor and excitement of the smart sport of debate, SVUDL helps youth tap the power of their voices to compete, excel, and change the world.”

Likewise, the curriculum at Cristo Rey compliments the overall goals of SVUDL. Focused on preparing students for success in college, the high school’s courses help develop skills such as research, classroom debate, advocating for injustice, political and social involvement. Together, Cristo Rey and SVUDL can help hone these skills and offer students opportunities to improve their public speaking abilities while engaging in competitive debate.  

SVUDL’s newest head coach, Robert Burns, will be guiding the way for these students as they explore the world of debate. As a high school student growing up in Atlanta, debate provided Burns the window for critical reflection on the social and political world around him. While a freshman attending college on a debate scholarship, he qualified to the college national championship. He also worked as an assistant debate coach while an undergraduate, completing his B.A. in 2001.  

After some years teaching college, the research skills and revolutionary ideas Burns learned in debate eventually led him to return to coaching at Lindenwood University in Missouri. Burns recruited and coached the first African American women to win both the CEDA and NDT collegiate national championships. For his work training first year college debaters, Burns received the Dick Stein Coach of the Year award in 2013.

Turning his focus to high school, Burns founded the policy debate team at North Star Academy in Newark, where he taught speech and debate to every grade level from 2014-2018. Burns coached two New Jersey Novice State Champions and the first varsity policy team in New Jersey history to win the prestigious Harvard debates while at North Star. This past year, two of his varsity teams finished as quarterfinalists and octafinalists at the 2018 Tournament of Champions.

Together with the coaching expertise of Burns, SVUDL and Cristo Rey have formed a dynamic new partnership to help underserved students find their voices and bright futures through the power of debate.

Debate and the Real World: Research


One of the most valuable skills debaters develop is the ability to research. We're not talking about your everyday research for high school term papers, where you only have to focus on building basic understanding of a topic and sharing an opinion on the situation. In debate, you build comfort with masterful, creative research that uncovers hidden biases in an article that could make it unreliable, that identifies new angles to a topic, and that ensures you become a true expert in the topic.

If you are debating about immigration, for example, it's pretty easy to find straightforward research that would be find for a term paper: numbers of immigrants, countries of origin, visa types, famous immigration arguments for and against. A debater, however,  reads and pushes through this surface level information to find deeper insight. They might find speeches from presidents around the world about opinions regarding immigration outside the US. They might uncover seemingly unrelated motivations for visa types.


This drive and the practice of working to find finding for better information and more understanding translates into success in college, graduate school, and any career track. Most jobs -- Program Manager at a tech company, Attorney at a successful firm, Independent Plumbing Contractor -- require problem solving and learning new things. The ability to think about key questions in creative ways and then dive deep to find reliable information to answer those questions and sets debaters up to achieve success, whatever path they may choose. 

Debate and the Real World: Storytelling

SVUDL strives to help build diversity in the field of law, preparing young debaters with the tools and passion to pursue a legal career. While law is an excellent application of debate skills, debate isn't just for future attorneys! This week we start a series of posts prepared by SVUDL Volunteer of the Year Carolyn Straub, a former debater Carolyn knows firsthand how debate skills transfer to and benefit you across many professional disciplines. This week, she's focusing on storytelling:

If you have ever worked on an opening speech for debate, then you know that crafting a storyline is very important. You need to have a clear idea of the main arguments you want to cover, but having a solid opener and strong closing are equally critical. Together, these pieces create a storyline that weaves an entire debate round together, connecting key examples, ideas, and research across speeches. While creating a storyline is essential it’s also extremely translatable in many other settings.

In most corporate roles, you will be required to present your proposals (for new projects, a product design, operational process, etc) to leadership to gather buy-in and the thumbs up to pursue. The presentation outline for meetings like this basically models that of a debate speech. Your objective remains the same: convince your audience to agree with you. For roles like construction foreman, plumber, or other client facing positions, having a well laid out storyline is critical for explaining the job you plan to employ (should the client agree with your plan, they also agree with your finances), or even in explaining when something goes wrong (the storyline here can allay a client’s concerns and retain trust in the professional’s abilities).

Nearly everyday we are in positions where we must explain our position clearly and articulately; the art of storytelling you build in debate is so useful that will help you no matter what career you ultimately choose- and it may even help get you out of chores today!


An amazing camp = an amazing year on tap!


There’s a strong sense of accomplishment when you finish a monumental task, and that feeling is all around SVUDL today- from student albums posted to Facebook to spreadsheets showing huge attendance and student satisfaction, there is evidence everywhere that SVUDL’s Savannah Walker Summer Debate Institute was a week that changed lives.

Over 100 students attended, with a nearly even distribution of rising freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors and a nearly even split between Peninsula students and those attending Title I schools in San Jose. Enormous learning took place for all of these students; youth who entered camp on Monday because "someone made them" were earning debate awards by Saturday. We invited Grammy-nominated artist Maimouna Yousef for a second year to perform and spend an afternoon leading an activism through song-writing workshop with Novice and JV debaters. Varsity debaters engaged at the highest level with this year’s topic of school reform, conducting research and building cases on both sides of this issue, AND we conducted the first bilingual debate in the country!

These exhilarating successes have built enormous momentum for the coming season. With a core of students ready to engage their peers at all eight school partners and new Head Coaches enthusiastic about sharing revolutionary power of urban debate, the first team practices can’t get here fast enough!

Savannah Walker Tournament Results


1st Place Team: Marabelle and Isaiah

2nd Place Team: Abraham and Marco

3rd Place Team: Hassan and Christina


1st Place Speaker: Vili

2nd Place Speaker: Yoselin

3rd Place Speaker: Taya

1st Place Team: Vili and Yoselin

2nd Place Team: Destiny and Elsa

3rd Place Team: Vae and Damien


1st Place Speaker: Kim

2nd Place Speaker: Mia

3rd Place Speaker Susie

1st Place Team: Mia and Daniela

2nd Place Team: Azeem (debating maverick!)

3rd Place Team: Josh and Shekita

SVUDL's 2017 Summer Debate Institute- in honor of Savannah Walker

Debate attracts amazing young people- young people like Savannah Walker. Savannah was born in 1996 in Arizona but grew up with her parents and older brother in Louisville, KY. An accomplished scholar-athlete, she started a lacrosse team at her middle school and continued lacrosse and field hockey in high school. During high school she achieved a remarkable 89% success rate on shots she took on goal.

A leader amongst her peers, Savannah graduated high school and enrolled in the University of Louisville as a recipient of the Woodford R. Porter Scholarship. This scholarship is awarded to African-American students graduating from a Kentucky high school who meet academic requirements and exhibit the aspiration to succeed and give back. She was quickly recruited onto the Malcolm X Debate Team at UL and was soon winning awards and tournaments. Within her first year, Savannah took 1st place in the JV division at the USC Alan Nichols Tournament, 2nd place in JV at the CSU Fullerton Kathryn Klassic Winter Debate Tournament and at the Samford Invitational, and cleared in Varsity at the University of Vermont Huber Debates. She also won multiple speaker awards in her impressive rookie year. Outside of debate and her studies, she found time to start the first UL Women’s Club Lacrosse Team and serve as its first President.

Savannah declared a double major in Communications and Sports Administration with a minor in Pan-African Studies, and debate lit her fire for social activism. By her junior year, she had become a vocal advocate for equity and social justice whose capacity to dream big and realize her vision inspired those around her. When Savannah’s mother passed away, Savannah founded the Deborah Walker Memorial Scholarship Fund to support teachers seeking advanced training.

Savannah tragically lost her life in a shooting incident at a concert at the Tim Faulkner Gallery in Louisville last March at the age of 20. Friends who were with her at the concert reported that Savannah pushed them out of the way of gunfire before she was shot. We are humbled to honor the legacy of Savannah Walker by dedicating the 2017 Summer Institute to this incredible young woman. 

SVUDL Summer Institute- train with Kiran Dhillon!

It's not every summer you get to study debate with the best- unless you go to the SVUDL Summer Debate Institute every year!

This year's instructor team includes Kiran Dhillon. She started debating in high school and quickly rose to compete at the national level. She attended the University of Iowa on a debate scholarship, and eventually earned a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin. This debate expert is also a skilled teacher, having taught debate at the Milwaukee High School of the Arts, Gonzaga University, and with the New York City Urban Debate League. She is currently employed by the University of Southern California as a lecturer and associate director of the USC Trojan Debate Squad. 

We spent a minute with Dr. Dhillon to get to know her.

- What’s your favorite debate memory?

"My favorite debate memory is when Jim Schultz, Vince Binder*, and I got together to throw a football around between rounds at CEDA Nationals in Oklahoma 10 years ago."

- What three words would you use to describe you as a debater? 

"Hard working, committed, and a team player."

- What do you think it takes to be a debate champion? 

"Consistency ."

- If you could give a new debater any piece of advice, what would it be? 

"Have fun! "

- What are you looking forward to at this year’s Summer Institute? 

"I'm looking forward to working with all the wonderful students and amazing staff at this year's Summer Institute!"

Don't miss your chance to learn from the best- register now for the Summer Institute!

*(Editor's note: Jim Schultz and Vince Binder are nationally-known debate icons. Jim is still teaching in the debate world; Vince tragically passed away in 2010.)

Welcome New Board Members!

We're thrilled to announce that three amazing champions for youth are joining the SVUDL Board of Directors!

Nadia Arid is a former debater who has taken everything debate can teach and leveraged it to enormous personal and professional success. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Stanford, where she was Community Outreach Director of Derechos, the Latino Pre-Law Society, Nadia earned her JD from Harvard Law in 2016. Her commitment to debate and social justice shine through her academic career, from her work co-founding the Eastside College Prep Debate program, to serving as President for the East Palo Alto Youth Court, to her work as a Ford Foundation Fellow at the National Immigration Center in Los Angeles. She has taught debate to hundreds of young people and has seen time and again how this smart sport can open a mind and change a life. 

Chris Hersey, a Silicon Valley native and former CA State Champion in policy debate, also knows the way debate can empower a promising young person and shares SVUDL's commitment to helping young people unlock their potential. He serves on the Legal Advisory Committee has played a major role in supporting our debaters as they prepare for Moot Court each spring. Chris has more than 19 years of civil litigation and trial experience, focusing on construction, contract, business, and commercial disputes. Before founding Ventura Rossi Hersey & Muller, LLP in 2013, Chris was a litigation partner for nine years at Miller Morton Caillat & Nevis, LLP in San Jose, CA. He lives with his wife and two high-school aged children in San Jose. Chris is a longtime season ticket holder of the San Jose Earthquakes soccer team, and an amateur astronomer.

A nationally recognized speaker, panelist, and author, Leslie Spencer is a registered patent attorney and partner in the IP litigation practice at Rope & Gray, where she also co-chairs the firm's diversity committee. She first learned about SVUDL though its legal career mentor program and is currently an active mentor. She serves on the Legal Advisory Committee and sees enormous promise in SVUDL's work to diversify the Legal Career Pipeline. Prior to practicing law, Leslie worked for financial services and e-commerce companies and supervised the development of a smart card-based secure transaction system.

Please join us in welcoming these passionate advocates to our Board!