faculty profile: Gabe Cook pushes to restore local urban high school debate programs

Bradley Hoffman

The art of argument is an immensely valuable skill for at-risk middle and high school students, which, according to Debate-Kansas City director Gabe Cook, is not being fostered and cared for by the Kansas City, Missouri school district.

Since 2010, 14 schools have dropped the Debate-Kansas City program, resulting in a 90 percent funding cut for the UMKC-supported urban debate league.

“The reason they said they did it was financial,” Cook said, “and the economic crisis that hit definitely affected all the schools’  budgets. But we think that debate was unfairly targeted by then-superintendent [John] Covington.”

Debate-Kansas City aims to bring debate programs to urban schools that have limited financial resources.

Cook recently saw the fruits of his work. Emporia State University’s Ryan Wash, whom Cook coached at Central High School, teamed with Elijah Smith to win the National Debate Tournament policy championship and the Cross Examination Debate Association championship.

In 1998, Linda Collier, then-director of the UMKC debate program, wrote a grant to start Debate-Kansas City because, as Cook said, “Debate in city schools across America was pretty much dead.”

Debate-Kansas City had to significantly ramp up fundraising efforts to continue operating and avoid losing staff.

In order for a school to participate in Debate-Kansas City, it must pay an annual $3,500 fee, which guarantees it will receive all services necessary to keep its debate program going throughout the year.

But, with Kansas City Public Schools cutting nearly all of its financial support for the program, Cook said he’s worried that what he’s helped build will continue to lose steam, and the results of that could be longer lasting than others realize.

“If you can get a student to debate enough rounds in high school,” he said, “there is very clear data that says they will graduate high school [and] they will be substantially better critical thinkers.

“They will have improved ACT scores in English and reading. They will be civically engaged; they’ll avoid at-risk behavior; they’ll be far more likely to go to college, and then they’ll be more likely to make an impact in society.”

Covington resigned from the position of superintendent in August 2011 and was replaced by Steve Green, about whom Cook expressed optimism.

“He’s been more supportive,” Cook said. “He’s considering, examining.”

In April the Lincoln College Preparatory Academy debate team qualified for this year’s national tournament—the Super Bowl of high school debate— in Birmingham, Ala.,  and Green has agreed to fund the team’s travel costs.

But, even with a new superintendent in charge, it is still uncertain whether or not Debate-Kansas City’s funding will be completely restored so the program can flourish and include more schools. “I have no idea when it’ll get restored,” Cook admits. “It’s something we’ve been working on for like three years.”

Despite budgetary struggles and the burden of allocating more time for fundraising efforts, Cook does not believe Debate-Kansas City will disappear

“I don’t really think that’s possible,” Cook said. “There’s too much invested, too many supporters.

“I think every school, period, should have debate programs. I believe in debate.”

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