The Road To Yale: Newly Expanded Speech and Debate Team Heads To First Competition

Standing in a line, shoulder-to-shoulder with their faces nearly pressed against the glass, the scholars peer outside the large, open windows that define the architecture of Bronx Prep High School. They are watching cheerleader tryouts.

As arms swing, and the sounds of syncopated chants waft down the nearly empty hallway, the scholars peer outside, seemingly pensive, perhaps thinking about how different their high school experience could have been if they had chosen cheerleading, or basketball, or volleyball as their extra curricular activity.

“That could have been you,” one of the scholars teases Dieynaba, a BPH junior. “Nah,” she says with a shake of her head. “I’m a Speech girl.” She gives a final glance out the window before walking back to the dance classroom doubling as a rehearsal space.

Dieynaba, who has been on the BPH Speech and Debate team for nearly three years has won numerous awards including a state championship. She’s been to more tournaments than she can keep track of, and this weekend she is headed to Yale University where she will perform a new piece.

Joining her on this trip will be many of the teammates she has been working alongside for those nearly three years. However, for the first time, the Bronx Prep team will be joined by several scholars from four of Democracy Prep’s Harlem-based high schools as part of the expansion of the Varsity Speech and Debate team.

The expansion of the program to include the Harlem schools will give more scholars a chance to gain experience and skill in public speaking, says Jerry Phelps, DP’s Director of the Arts. “They will learn to be a part of a collaborative team, build work ethic, poise, and a drive for excellence,” he says.

Last year the BPH Speech and Debate team placed in numerous competitions across the country, and scholars, Stephan and Tavan, took home first place in the national competition.

The Harlem scholars haven’t participated in national competitions yet, but they have been very active in the arts including starring in several school plays.

Clayton F., a Harlem High School junior is eager to see what he can learn from team coaches, Sarah Rosenberg and Luis Cardenas.

“It’s great to be a part of a founding team, but I wanted to see what I can learn from being a part of something that is established,” Clayton says.

At practice on this particular afternoon, groups of Harlem and Bronx scholars are spread out in small groups. Some are working together on blocking for monologues, others are speaking silently, rehearsing parts.

Cardenas is working with scholars one-on-one, coaching them through the tough parts of their pieces, and asking them to dig deeper to access the emotions needed to bring the monologues to life.

He says he is excited about the expansion of the team to include the Harlem scholars. “They’ve really gravitated toward this quickly,” he says. “They are excited about going to Yale this weekend.”

Dieynaba says the collaboration with the Harlem scholars has been fun.

“It’s fun to meet new people,” she says. “ It’s also nice to help them learn and see our team get bigger. It’s a win-win.”

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