About Milwaukee Debate League

Created in 2007, the Milwaukee Debate League is a national leader in academic enrichment programming. Our unique program differs from other youth development programs in that it blends competition and fun with uniquely rigorous academic work. Many programs aim to keep teens safe and occupied in the afternoon, but debate adds an engaging, educational opportunity that actively cultivates social and academic skills. MDL uses debate in a variety of ways to reach a broad spectrum of students, from those already highly achieving to those who are off-track academically, to teach portable skills useful in the classroom and beyond.


The mission of the Milwaukee Debate League is to measurably improve students’ academic achievement and their expectations of themselves by engaging in rigorous academic policy debate. Through this spirited competition, students have the opportunity to become articulate and informed leaders in their schools, and effective advocates for themselves, their families, and their community.

Principles That Guide MDL’s Growth

Urban debate is for everyone: All students can realize the benefits from competitive policy debate in a diverse environment. We believe that policy debate can help reduce the achievement gap for urban students of color. We have an opportunity to broaden the scale and scope of what is possible in our schools by expanding our reach to impact the academic achievements of entire schools. We are part of a larger support network for our students, which includes the involvement of talented educators in Milwaukee-area schools, as well as volunteers and supporters of urban debate. We seek to connect to other specialized support networks at the regional and national level to ensure our debaters receive the skilled and knowledgeable resources they need to reach their own potential.


The Milwaukee Debate League is for all students and especially helps low-income and minority youth tap into the power of their voices to compete, excel, and change the world. Our program leverages the collective success of Urban Debate Leagues across the country to build a model that fosters educational growth and development for our students to become future leaders of America.

Why Debate?

Competitive academic debate offers a powerful means of engaging students in their own education and reversing negative trends. Debaters come from across the academic spectrum, including those who do not attend school regularly or are not thriving in the traditional classroom. Debate appeals to these students as a fun, competitive, and student-centered way to encounter academic subjects. For many, debate tournaments are a rare opportunity to connect intellectually with their peers and to have their ideas about important issues considered seriously by adults.

Improving Academic Performance

Debate is a powerful literacy tool for students whose reading difficulties bring down their grades and sap their motivation to succeed. A University of Missouri study found that after one year in an Urban Debate League, debaters attended school more frequently, improved their GPAs by 10%, decreased risky behaviors, and achieved a 25% increase in literacy scores relative to a non-debating control group.

Building a Bridge to College

A Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation study examined high school dropouts through a series of focus groups involving young people in 25 different locations in the U.S. The study found that, of those students who dropped out of high school, 47% said they were bored in class, 69% were not motivated to work hard, 66% would have worked harder if more had been demanded of them, and 88% had passing grades when they dropped out (Bridgeland). Participation in debate in an urban setting, however, provides “meaningful achievement in college-readiness and the likelihood of graduating high school” and results in higher grade points and a significant increase in the high school graduation rate, when compared with non-debaters (Mezuk). One study found that 90% of debaters go on to earn at least one collegiate degree (Colbert & Biggers).

Bridgeland, John M., “The Silent Epidemic—Perspectives of High School Dropouts,” A Report by Civic Enterprises in Association with Peter D. Hart Research Associates for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (March 2006). https://docs.gatesfoundation.org/documents/thesilentepidemic3-06final.pdf

Mezuk, Briana, et al, “Impact of Participating in a Policy Debate Program on Academic Achievement: Evidence from the Chicago Debate League” (2011). http://urbandebate.org/Portals/0/Impact%20of%20Participatging%20in%20Policy%20Debate.pdf?ver=2016-12-19-181916-090

Colbert & Biggers, “Why Should We Support Debate?” Journal of the American Forensic Ass’n, (Spring 1985)

Eliminating Non-Academic Barriers to Success

Debate offers an individualized, empowering, and student-centered learning model that engages students of all abilities, including those who may not be thriving in a traditional classroom. Participation in debate fosters relationships between students, their teachers, and students who have a common goal of academic success. Many debaters view their team as their family and may receive needed emotional support. Debate motivates our students to keep coming to school.

Skills for the 21st Century

Critical skills needed in the workforce include: communication and oral presentation skills; the ability to solve complex problems; and the ability to work in teams. Participation in organized debate teaches and supports the development of these critical skills. Debaters work in two person teams during the debate, and work as a larger team during practice to prepare for debates. They are forced to think through complex arguments, often on their feet. Developing these skills is incredibly valuable in preparing students for their future in the workforce.

Developing Leaders

Debaters are disproportionately represented in leadership ranks in law, business, and academics. With high expectations, expanded horizons, and advanced skills, urban debaters are equipped to improve their schools, strengthen their communities, and ultimately make useful contributions to the nation’s leadership. Debate engages students in politics and community issues. Debaters develop powerful, accomplished voices and grow accustomed to professionals treating their public policy ideas seriously. According to the National Institute on Out-of-School Time, “youth debaters increased their ability to think about both domestic and global political issues. While becoming experts on large issues, they were also making connections from the debates to their own lives and taking their new knowledge “to the streets.” “Youth debaters want to use their political skills, vote, and get into the political life of the community.”

Hall, Georgia, “Civic Connections: Urban Debate and Democracy in Action during Out-Of-School Time,” National Institute on Out-of-School Time (2006). http://www.niost.org/pdf/afterschoolmatters/asm_2006_op7_fall/asm_2006_op7_fall-2.pdf

“Competitive urban debate is almost uniquely suited to building what’s been called the ‘Four C’s’ of 21st century skills—critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. And to that list I might add a fifth ‘C’—for civic awareness and engagement.”
– U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

Participating Schools

High Schools
Rufus King IB High School
North Division High School
Ronald Reagan High School
Golda Meir High School
Vincent High School
Milwaukee High School of the Arts

Middle Schools
Golda Meir Middle School
Rufus King IB Middle School
MacDowell Montessori School
Manitoba School


Board of Directors
Tim Schally • Attorney, Michael Best & Friedrich LLP — President
Christopher M. Carpenter • President, Carpenter Partners Group — Treasurer
Benjamin Sauer • Attorney, Davis & Kuelthau S.C. — Secretary

Members At-Large
Brooke Billick • Chief Compliance Officer, Artisan Partners Limited Partnership
Heidi M. Furlong • Attorney, Foley & Lardner LLP
Tamanjong Fusi • Director RBS, Commercial Excellence, Rexnord
Gustavo Grunbaum • Corporate Counsel, S.C. Johnson & Son, Inc.
Grant C. Killoran • Attorney, O’Neil Cannon Hollman DeJong & Laing S.C.
Kimo Ah Yun • Dean, Marquette University Diederich College of Communications
Emily Stedman • Attorney, Quarles & Brady, LLP