The most important story in the Chicago Debate League last year wasn’t its second consecutive National Championship in urban debate, or advancing a team to the Final Round of the Illinois High School Association State Varsity Debate Championship, or a handful of other top competitive accolades. The most important story in the Chicago Debate League last year was the dramatic increase in low-income student and school participation.

Low-income public school students are eligible for federal Title I funding, which provides free or reduced price lunch and other federally subsidized benefits to the schools that teach Title I students. The origin of the Title I designation is the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was modified and extended by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. In the parlance of public education, lower-income students are termed Title I students.

The percentage of Title I students across schools in the “AA” Conference is 86.8%. In 2008/09 the number of debaters in this Conference increased by a striking 145% over 2007/08 — in other words, the CDL Conference with the most low-income students more than doubled in size in one year. This is in contrast to steady numbers in the Regional Circuit Conference, where many of the League’s selective enrollment schools compete, and the Title I student percentage is 57.7%.

Even more dramatically, in schools with 90% or more Title I students, participation in the CDL grew by 192%, almost tripling the number of debaters in one year. Moreover, a substantial portion of this growth is from returning schools, not simply the addition of new schools. Returning school growth adds to our overall participation numbers in a very cost-efficient manner.

Low-income students in Chicago are in greatest need of the transformative benefits of competitive academic debate. The Chicago Debate Commission focused a substantial share of its own human and organizational resources to build interest in debate in our schools with high Title I rates. Increasing the percentage of first-generation college students and decreasing the racial achievement gap are proven outcomes of the CDL’s research-driven intervention.