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.”