The Chicago Middle School Debate League has grown from eight to fourteen schools this year. Among the new competitors are over a dozen standout debaters from Emiliano Zapata Academy in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood. Zapata is a school of just under a thousand students, comprised almost of entirely the children of first-generation immigrants, 99% of whom are from low-income Latino families. Zapata began fielding a competitive debate team in the Middle School League not long before Tournament One, starting with some of its top eighth-grade students, six boys and eight girls.
Zapata’s success story begins with Chris McCabe, its dedicated and enthusiastic coach. Chris, in his five years at Zapata as a Mathematics teacher, has mentored students in activities like MathCounts and Academic Olympics before starting an intramural after-school debate club four years ago. As he describes it, “I decided to start a debate team because I felt it was an academic outlet for some students that did not have athletic ability or interest, as with all the extracurricular activities offered at our school. We ran in-house debates with real world topics.”
McCabe describes the decision to give his students an additional challenge: “When the CDL contacted us this year about the opportunity to join, I admit I was a bit hesitant. Saying that, I never could have imagined the effect on my students. At first they were terrified to compete against other schools, but with the help of our support coach, Cadmiel Avendaño [UIC undergraduate and Little Village High School external coach and alum, winner of 2010 CDL Debater of the Year], they took a brave step. Tournament One was a huge success and we had three speaker award winners and three team award winners in the Novice division.”
McCabe’s students found their first competitive foray motivating and McCabe was able to channel this enthusiasm to drive the team to even loftier goals. “After Tournament One, the students really pushed themselves to be ready for the next tournament. They came in every morning from 7:30 to 9:00 and set up the flows during lunch at their own table. The students performed even better at Tournament Two even though they all moved up to JV [where they competed against mostly second-year debaters].”
At Tournament Two, hosted at Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences this past December, competing against 121 middle school student debaters, Zapata’s students, who are all first-year debaters, took home three of the top seven JV team awards, including Third Place, more than any other school competing in JV, and had three of the top ten speakers in JV.
These accomplishments have not gone unnoticed in the hallways at Zapata and bode well for the future of debate in the Little Village neighborhood. McCabe notes that “with the success of the team I have had interest from over 30 students in the current 5th, 6th, and 7th grades that will hopefully allow us to grow the program over the following year.”
Assistant Principal Jose Ramirez views the Zapata debate team as an extremely positive force within the school, noting that “debate has given our students a great opportunity to experience talents that they probably didn’t know they had. Mr. McCabe has taken those talents to a whole different level and it has shown in our participation in the CDL. The dedication that our students have shown has meant much to our school community and it has inspired other students to join debate.”
We asked the debaters at Zapata to reflect on their experiences:
Coach McCabe sums it up: “The effort, dedication, and ambition these students have shown has been an inspiration to myself, the staff and the administration. It has given students that are going through difficult times outside of school a positive academic release rather than taking up a negative street hobby. My heart swells with pride to see a bunch of kids from 26th Street do the things they do. All of this would not be possible without the gift we were given to compete this year.”