Students at a struggling Brooklyn middle school are learning to argue their way to the top. Our education reporter, Lindsey Christ, has the story.
MS 50 in Williamsburg has emerged as an unlikely powerhouse on the middle school debate circuit this year - out performing dozens of other schools at weekend tournaments.
"That experience is — amazing," said sixth-grader Hendriny Vargas.
For years, the school has struggled with low attendance and even lower test scores. Last spring, just 6% of students passed the state math test and 10% passed the English exam.
But this year — under a new principal — the whole school has taken up debate in an effort to turn things around.
"It was like kind of new and everybody would be like 'oh that's boring' but like now, as you see it developing, you'd be like 'Oh my gosh.' You're researching and you're finding out new things that you never known and it gets you thinking whether your idea and your perspective is correct," said eighth-grader Janelis Estrella.
MS 50 is one of 94 struggling schools Mayor Bill de Blasio has given extra resources as part of his renewal program. The school now needs to improve quickly —or it could be closed for good.
So it's using a program developed out of Harvard to get every student debating — in every class.
"It works on skills like research and critical thinking and developing a student's voice and it empowers students to take stands on topics," said principal Benjamin Honoroff.
"It makes them stronger all across the board," said English teacher and debate coach Jason Warren. "That single skill of being able to support and argue their point."
Every week, during regular classes, the whole school works on the same debate topic and studies the same five "focus words" — academic vocabulary that is critical for high school and college-level work.
Students all takes a debate class four times a week and several dozen practice and compete with the team.
"Doing debate and having to debate and really having to do your best to try to win is going to help me," said seventh-grader Heaven Nesbitt.
The early results are promising, attendance at MS 50 has gone from 89% last year to 93% this year.
And research shows that 36% of students who participated in this debate program at other city schools went from "below grade level" in reading comprehension to grade level by the end of the year.