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Unlikely Brooklyn middle school debaters best in the five boroughs — and maybe in the USA


There’s no argument here: The debate team at Middle School 50 is breaking down its opponents — and stereotypes.

The squad from the Williamsburg school, just three years from nearly closing its doors for good, is now one win away away from reaching the national championships in Houston.

“We constantly not only compete against schools with more funding, but we also win,” said proud school principal Ben Honoroff. “It’s working harder, smarter and longer … I leave school inspired every day.”

The Brooklyn school remains an unlikely launching pad for the fast-thinking youths who captured the last three citywide debate titles. Just three years ago, with the student population down from 1,200 to just 165 over the previous two decades, the school teetered on the edge of extinction.

But the program, available for students in either English or Spanish, altered both the future of the school and its participants. Enrollment now stands at 300, with one in kids five enrolled in the debate program.

On Saturday, the team members hosted a debate for 100 students from seven local elementary schools as they spread the good word.

Student Diego Pena, a Dominican native who came to MS 50 in early 2017, cited the debate team for his metamorphosis from a kid with no dreams to an aspiring attorney.

“It teaches you how to think, how to analyze both parts of the argument,” said Pena, a star student who now works with younger debaters. “The debate is something grand that opens your mind to many things.”

The Texas trip is not the first national attention for the MS 50 debaters. New York’s Democratic Rep. Nydia Velazquez previously honored the team with a speech and a plaque on the floor of the House of Representatives.

The program began with just four students in 2013. While morale and membership exploded, not everything has changed: Nine out of 10 of the school’s poverty-stricken students still qualify for a free lunch.

Janier Espinal, a fifth-grader, hopes to join the MS 50 squad next year. With the aid of the older students, he notched a pair of first-place finishes Saturday in Spanish-language and individual debate.

“I feel like I’m doing something big,” said the Dominican immigrant, who one day hopes to work in the White House. “I always wanted to come here to learn English, help my family and get a better life.”

Eighth-grader Kevin Ascencion, 13, recalled how the competitions boosted his self-confidence and ability to handle pressure.

“It’s really nerve-wracking going against top-ranked schools,” said the son of two Mexican immigrants. “But it helps you to be competitive and teaches you how to step up."

Parent Steve Guerrero, father of 10-year-old debater Juaquin, was stunned by the composure of the kids.

”I would have never expected kids of this age to be this articulate,” he marveled. “I would have vomited and started crying if I had to do this when I was 10 years old.”

MS 50 teacher Caroline Hidalgo, who launched the Spanish language team, recalled breaking down in tears when Pena told her about his hopes.

“I never thought I created a difference like that,” she recounted. “Now every time I wake up in the morning, I wake up with more life knowing that I am making a good impact.”

About The New York City Urban Debate League

Our mission is that every school should have a debate team and every student should have the opportunity to the best debate education opportunities. One of the most critical problems in education today is the academic and civic achievement gaps. Our solution is to provide the best college, career, civic, communication and community opportunities through year round academic debate. Each month we work with thousands of students and hundreds of schools. We support debate practices every day, debate centers every week, tournaments every weekend, workshops every month, debate camps all summer, and year round support for any student and teacher. We are one of the the city’s most award winning curricular and extracurricular programs. We have received awards from the White House, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Presidential Commission on the Arts and Humanities, National Institute for Museum and Library Services, The Social Index of Top 100 Nonprofits, BoardSource, Points of Light’s Civic Accelerator, Teach for America, and by the First Lady as “one of the top arts and humanities based programs in the country.” Why Debate? Debate teaches every academic skill and every academic subject. A Great Debater means a person who has the skills and confidence to lead, to speak up, to argue, to question, to read and write to right the wrongs, to know about the world around you, and to change the world around you.

The New York City Urban Debate League
25 Broadway, 12th Floor