Support School Program Provides Vital Assistance

The Chicago Middle School League has experienced substantial growth since its recent inception, including a 14% increase in student participation and 20% growth in the number of schools in the 2009-10 academic year. The MSL is growing so quickly that its tournaments now have to be hosted in high schools, with Morgan Park hosting Tournament One in November, Kelvyn Park T2 in December, and King College Prep T3 this month. For the first time, a guest school has joined. Calumet Elementary has paid to join the CMSDL and has been an active and enthusiastic member, even creating and posting on YouTube its own recruiting video.

Mandee Polonsky, Manager of the Enrichment Program at CPS, reported on the growth of the Middle School League. “We have seen a substantial increase in demand for the Middle School Debate League program throughout the district. The league provides them with a unique opportunity for their students to meet others with similar interests and travel around the city for academic competition. They also engage with high school students as mentors and judges during rounds, which adds another positive element and layer of support. We look forward to supporting continued growth in the program.”

One of the crucial features of the design of the Middle School League is the Support School Program, where each elementary school is matched with a designated Support School. The Support Schools typically are those high schools with most effectively operating debate programs. The Support School coaches take part in 10 site visits to the elementary schools over the course of the season, two per month. On these visits the Support School coaches work with the elementary school coaches and students.

Krystle Pancotto, formerly of Smyser Elementary School, explained how this mentor relationship works. “Starting with the 2008-09 season, Smyser has been matched with Juarez Academy. Juarez coach Russell Easley came out to our meetings more than a dozen times to assist me and my students. It helped strengthen their debating skills, both in concept and application. Mr. Easley’s enthusiasm and ability to inspire my students was a welcome breath of fresh air! My students and I benefited immensely from the partnership and we were lucky to have him as part of the Smyser team.”

Most Support School coaches bring their high school debaters along on these visits to create a peer-tutoring environment from the city’s experienced student-debaters. This also provides a valuable teaching experience for the high school students. Support School coaches are given an additional stipend for lending their time and expertise in their mentoring role, and Support School debaters are provided a small stipend for judging at Middle School tournaments as well.

The Support Schools also benefit from this relationship. Support coach Laura Houston explains that “One of the most rewarding parts of participating in the MS League is the opportunity for my high school students to become leaders themselves. Many of my LP varsity and JV debaters eagerly anticipate the middle school tournaments; they love to judge the rounds, and to teach the younger kids tips and strategies. They also gain empathy that they apply during their own competitions, and the perspective to see things from the judge’s point of view.”

Overall, the CDL is leveraging its high school debate talent and experience for the benefit of elementary public school kids in the Chicago Middle School Debate League.