About Us

Young people of all backgrounds deserve the dignity of a world-class education and fair opportunities to learn and succeed.  Unfortunately, urban youth attending public schools often lack quality opportunities to develop key literacy and life skills.  Each of the approximately 140,000 students in the Shelby County Schools (SCS) has unique talents, creativity, and potential.  Unfortunately, barriers and low expectations sometimes impede their aspirations to become successful, engaged adults.

Academic debate programs can be part of the solution.  Debate helps to close the achievement gap and to prepare low-income youth to achieve in school, succeed as adults, and ultimately strengthen their communities.  Now students in Shelby County have access to this life-changing activity through the Shelby DEBATE Society (SDS).

SDS is a partnership between SCS and a private group of civic and business leaders organized as the Shelby DEBATE Commission.  The Commission holds responsibility for strategic planning, volunteer and paid staff coordination, advocacy, supplemental fundraising, and deployment of university technical expertise, while SCS will be the institutional home of the SDS and will fund its core costs. The National Association for Urban Debate Leagues (NAUDL), the national leadership organization of the urban debate movement, helped to form this partnership and will guide its success through proven expertise and strategy.

SDS launched originally as the Memphis Urban Debate League in March 2008 and now enjoys participation by students and teachers from 23 SCS high schools.  It aims to continue growing until every high school in the district participates.  With debate, Shelby County youth will have an opportunity to learn the literacy, critical thinking, and life skills they need to succeed in college and beyond.  Similar to their more advantaged private school counterparts, minority and low-income students all have the potential to lead successful, fulfilling lives.  The SDS will provide a life-changing activity for Shelby County youth to access that potential.

Our initiatives include:

Countywide Tournaments
The centerpieces of the SDS are five County-wide debate tournaments held throughout the school year. A SDS debate tournament is a rigorous, intense academic competition that can last up to twenty hours. In teams of two, SCS students argue for and against public policy proposals on issues ranging from science to economics to politics and government. For many students, tournaments are rare opportunities to connect intellectually with their peers, and to have their ideas about important issues considered seriously by adults. Such an experience has a powerful effect on a student’s self-esteem and interest in education.

After School Program
In each participating high school, teachers run after school practices for a minimum of three hours per week, training students to compete against other teams. The Society also hosts student workshops throughout the season where college students and law school students from the Public Action Law Society work with our students.

Summer Debate Institute
Each summer, the Shelby Debate Society organizes a free debate institute to prepare students for the upcoming season and provide professional development for teachers. Typically the program is held on the campus of The University of Memphis.

Coach Training
To help teachers become more effective debate coaches, SDS provides professional development and technical support, based on best practices compiled from across the National Urban Debate League network. The Executive Director runs practices at member schools to model effective teaching, develops curriculum, and works with teachers individually to help them hone their craft.

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