It was the presidential debate America had been waiting for: serious, cordial and entirely focused on the issues. Only it was held by high school students in a classroom in north Miami-Dade.
Five teenagers met at Miami Dade College’s North Campus on Thursday evening for a practice run of their formal upcoming presidential debate on Saturday. There was no name-calling or talking over the moderator and no mention of sexual harassment or infidelities.
Nathalie Parra, 17, a senior at Miami Senior High School, laid out Hillary Clinton’s policies on education in under two minutes and made a case for more investment in crumbling schools. “We ask so much of our educators,” she said, launching into the candidate’s plan for bankrolling school improvements.
Gerardo Acosta, 15, a sophomore at Young Men's Preparatory Academy, responded by defending Donald Trump’s philosophy on education, and delivered an impassioned rebuke of Common Core, the controversial state standards for English and math.
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The students were representing the Miami-Dade Urban Debate League, a new chapter of a national nonprofit focused on helping inner-city kids get good grades and college scholarships through debate. The league created its first Miami-Dade teams last year, launching the program in 18 of the county’s neediest public schools. Their Saturday debate at the University of Miami is open to the public.
The students debated domestic surveillance at a tournament last school year, but with the heated rhetoric flying during the election season, program director Nalisa Saati decided that the presidential debates would make a good theme this time.
The idea came to Saati as she visited schools across the county for debate practice and heard students say things like, “I’m voting for Trump because Hillary is a liar,” or “I’m voting for Clinton because Trump is sexist.”
“To hear that from students was so disheartening,” said Saati. “We wanted to talk about issues that matter.”
The idea of the event — in partnership with the Arthur N. Rupe Foundation, the National Speech & Debate Association, and local colleges and universities, along with other supporters — is to give students an opportunity to explore where the candidates stand on hot-button issues like climate change, the economy and immigration.
“I feel like a lot of students feel hopeless about politics. And so to show that change has been made and is happening every day through policy gives them a chance to step into those shoes that they want to model,” Saati said.
The students at Thursday’s practice session had no trouble identifying with some of the issues.
“I feel strongest about immigration,” said Dalina Dorce, 15, a ninth grader at Miami Jackson Senior High School and the daughter of a Haitian immigrant. “I know not all immigrants are good, but I know a few good ones and it kind of hurts to see them go away for something they have no control over,” she said.
Dalina said that because of Trump’s stance on immigration, she has a hard time advocating his policies, even though she knows that as part of the debate she will have to take on both sides of the issues.
For Ismael Ferro, 15, a 10th grader at Young Men's Preparatory Academy, Clinton’s policies are the hardest to argue. “A lot of [her] policies are a little less clear,” he said.
For Ismael, one of the most important education issues is standardized testing, which, as a high school student, he has plenty of first-hand experience with. “I’ve always believed that testing is not a good way to measure students,” he said.
The students said the real presidential debates have been very different from their debate tournaments.
When asked if he had learned anything about debating from watching Clinton and Trump, Gerardo, who had been advocating Trump’s education policies during the practice session, shook his head. “It was something very different than what I’m used to,” he said. “We’re taught not to interrupt.”
If you go
The Miami-Dade Urban Debate League Presidential Elections Public Debate will be held from 10:30 a.m. to noon Saturday, Oct. 29, in Shoma Hall, CIB 3053, at the University of Miami School of Communication. It is open to the public. More information can be found on the debate league’s website: http://miamiurbandebate.org/