Three years ago, there was no argument that Middle Years Alternative School (MYA) should have a debate team. From the high caliber of students’ academic level, and with the help of Jeremy Shinefeld, MYA has a reputation of being middle school debate champions.
Shinefeld, a third-year special education liaison teacher at MYA, had previously coached a debate team at William Penn High School, which is now closed. Shinefeld said he wanted to create a similar team at MYA.
“When I came here, I thought it would be a worthwhile thing to start up,” Shinefeld said.
“He’s done a wonderful job with them. They do great things,” Principal Kathleen Fitzpatrick said.
In order to be on the debate team, students participate in a program called Emerging Scholars. On Fridays, the entire school has an elective period to engage in enrichment activities such as poetry, art, music, dance, chess and the debate team. MYA has partnered with Penn for Youth Debate (PFYD), University of Pennsylvania undergrad students who volunteer to work with students on various educational projects during Emerging Scholars.
“It’s just a lot of fun. We get a lot done and they’re incredibly motivated and incredibly engaged. I like watching the students over the course of the year and from year to year. The way they grow is unbelievable. It helps their literacy. I’ve seen students who came in barely literate who are now reading,” Shinefeld said.
Shinefeld explained more about the educational experience learned as a member of the debate team.
“They learn more about research in this than I think they do elsewhere. They learn about everything from writing a paper, to proper citation, how to formulate an argument clearly. Just basic logic. They don’t teach logic unless you’re in college,” Shinefeld said.
Currently, the team is preparing for spring tournaments. To prepare for competitions, Shinefeld holds after-school practices. The team studies Supreme Court cases, reads the U.S. Constitution and looks over previous debate questions.
There are about 16 students on the team. One student, David Redmond is active on the team. As a trombone player for three years, Redmond was recommended by teachers to join the team.
“[Shinefeld] said I was good at it because I could bring up a good point,” Redmond said.
Redmond said his favorite subject is math, and explained why the debate team is influential in his personal development and educational career.
“Leadership, it’s like the biggest and responsibility because you have a lot of homework and preparations you have to do good in the competition.”
Redmond does admit that he was nervous during his first debate, which discussed the private ownership of handguns in the United States.
He said balancing the trombone and studying for the debate team is challenging, too, because his mom works in the morning and his dad works at night. However, Redmond found his system of success.
“I try to practice [the trombone] in the morning when my mom is awake and I practice my debate at night because that’s silent,” Redmond said.
Since the MYA’s debate team has been established, they have won consecutively at the Penn for Youth Debate Fall/Spring Tournaments.
In 2011, the team received first place overall in both the spring and fall tournaments.
The MYA team participated in the 2010 Penn for Youth Debate. The fourth annual tournament featured ninety students from high schools and middle schools around the city of Philadelphia. This was the largest edition of the tournament.
From MYA, Dhamir Cosby, Sulaiman Sabre, Francis Strobel and Rohan Bennett were Quarterfinalists. Robert DeBeary and George McGriff were Finalists. Mikaela Lee and Devon Burton were middle school tournament champions. First place top speaker was given to George McGriff. Third place was given to Dhamir Cosby. Lee and Burton were also the champions of the middle school division.
Recognized and funded by Penn, PFYD runs this tournament including the Liberty Bell Classic.
Shinefeld said he wants students to realize that overall this experience will help them develop essential skills.
“I hope the kids learn to think. It’s a lot of teaching the kids what they need to know, not much teaching of how to think. Think clearly, speak clearly and read well,” Shinefeld said.