The 2016–2017 school year has been one for the record books at Birmingham City Schools.
From the graduating senior class collecting more than $39 million in scholarships to the Ramsay High School football team winning the Class 6A state football championship, the Magic City’s star students shined brightly.
And there is another area where Birmingham’s best and brightest are making their mark: debate tournaments.
Ramsay High School juniors Brooklin Ballard and Eshandae “Shae” Thomas will compete in the 2017 National Speech and Debate Tournament, which will be held in Birmingham next month (June 18–23). The duo is scheduled to debate on June 19.
To earn a spot at nationals, Ballard and Thomas, part of the SpeakFirst team of debaters from across the city of Birmingham, practiced more than 13,500 hours and competed in 24 tournaments across the South over the past three years. When they were first asked to work together as teammates, Ballard and Thomas said, “No.”
“We’ve known each other since sixth grade, and we’re too good of friends to get any work done,” Thomas explained.
Ballard and Thomas proved their point during fall competition, when their chemistry in life didn’t match up on the podium. Still, their coach, Rachel Puckett, insisted they give it another go. They did. And now the duo is headed to the national tournament after finishing in the top four at the Deep South District Tournament in early spring; they went 6–1, finishing second.
Facing the Challenge
For the third time in 13 years, the National Speech and Debate Tournament will be held in Birmingham. More than 150,000 students from 110 school districts around the U.S. compete throughout the academic year to qualify for a spot in the national competition.
“I’m not nervous,” Thomas said. “But I will be anxious going into the rounds. Once it starts, though, you’re fine.”
Thomas was the captain of her chess team in middle school, but was barred by her mother from competing in debate until high school. Now her achievements in competition will open academic doors she didn’t expect just a few years ago.
“I’m excited about college,” Thomas said. “And I plan to let other people pay for my [education].”
Ballard, the seventh of 14 children in her family—a group affectionally known as the Ballard Bunch—figured debating was natural.
“Being the middle child made me more outgoing,” she said.
Thomas said debating has made her more open-minded.
“We address a lot of different topics, and we’re in Alabama, so we debate against a lot of different people,” she said. “It really challenges us to work hard to outshine them.”
Getting the Point Across
Confidence is important during tournaments, Thomas said.
“Going into these rounds against predominantly white males, you have to really make your voice heard to get your point across,” she said. “Being a debater gives you the strength to be competitive and be on an even playing field.”
Debate Coach Puckett said she has seen an increase in confidence in both Ballard and Thomas since the two have partnered.
“They have figured out a system that works between the two of them as a partnership,” said Puckett, a recent University of Alabama graduate who is one of four full-time coaches. “I think they feel a lot more secure within that system, and it’s one less thing to worry about. … The two of them are both in sync, and they get to focus on other things instead of worrying about whether their partner is carrying their weight.”
For the next month, Ballard and Thomas will stay abreast of current events from across the globe and hone their research skills when they receive the debate topics. Thomas is the first speaker, so she sets the tone. Ballard is the rebuttalist.
“If you get into an argument and you’re not prepared, you can get embarrassed very easily,” Ballard said.
Ballard and Thomas are members of SpeakFirst, a Birmingham Student Debate Initiative that consists of 20 students from city schools. Three days a week, three hours at a time, the team practices in a building wedged between the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) campus and the city center.
SpeakFirst, a project run by Birmingham City Schools and the nonprofit Impact Alabama, is designed to engage talented and motivated Birmingham middle and high school students in a competitive debate program. Competition and prep require extensive research, media literacy, reading comprehension, and a willingness to put it all on the line to make a compelling argument in front of groups of strangers. The goal of Impact Alabama and SpeakFirst is to shine a light on some of the system’s brightest stars.
“Every school system in Alabama, no matter how poor performing, has kids who want to raise the bar,” said Stephen Black, executive director of Impact Alabama, a student service initiative dedicated to developing and implementing service-learning projects in coordination with students from universities and colleges throughout the state.
“SpeakFirst gives these students a chance to work together and compete together for Birmingham on an academic level,” said Black, an attorney and the grandson of former Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black.
Black has reached out to and received support from leaders in the corporate community, including Regions Bank: “The corporate support is huge, obviously. It allows us to reach out not only to the high school kids but also to younger students to get them involved earlier.”
Ballard and Thomas have remained the best of friends. Instead of goofing off, they’ve found that they are like-minded, competitive, and work together well. Seeing their teamwork and success has been everything Debate Coach Puckett expected.
“This is why we’re here: for the students who want to learn more, read more, and make an impact on the world we live in,” she said.