Last month, nine scholars at Success Academy Harlem East traveled to Washington D.C., where they met with members of Congress, toured the U.S. Capitol Building, and put on a debate showcase. Samantha Perez was one of four scholars who participated in the first portion of the exhibition — a competition-style two-on-two debate in front of an audience that included education policy experts, U.S. members of Congress, and their staffers. Those scholars debated students’ Fourth Amendment rights during a school search. After the formal debate, all nine traveling scholars — mostly eighth graders — took questions from the crowd on Success Academy’s debate program.
SA Harlem East’s debate teacher and coach, Jabril Goodner, served as judge of the debate. Mr. Goodner is one of 10 debate teachers across the Success Academy network, where students can choose to take debate as an elective or as an afterschool club. Last year, more than 70 Success Academy scholars debated in 20 competitive tournaments.
To kick off the showcase, SA Harlem East principal David Noah explained to an engaged audience what makes debate so important to Success Academy’s middle school design: its ability to help students develop critical thinking, public speaking, and advocacy skills. With intellectual and character development as primary goals for scholars at all SA middle schools, debate plays a major role in providing scholars with an outlet for growth.
After the showcase, Samantha, an eighth grader from the Bronx, shared what it felt like to debate in front of elected officials and opened up about what it means to be on stage — whether to debate or to pursue her other passion, dance.
How did it feel to debate on a U.S. Capitol stage and meet members of the United States Congress — people who debate for a living?
I was definitely nervous at first. It’s such a rare opportunity that you get to do something like this and perform in front of members of Congress. At first, when I was going into the building, I felt like Cady Heron in Mean Girls on the first day of high school. I know it’s a cliché, but I really felt like I was in a movie scene. After making it through my first major speech, I knew I had to calm down, and I did it! By the end, I was ecstatic with how it was going.
And I felt the same way before meeting a U.S. congressman [a few hours before the showcase]. But then the Congressman or his staff said something like, “Why do you look like you’re seeing Ricky Martin?” It was then that I knew I was going to be just fine. It was such an honor, and I don’t mean that in the generic way some people say it. It was just truly amazing to be there.
Why do you participate in debate at SA Harlem East?
I joined debate because it’s probably the only place I feel independent and that I’m being truly heard. Debate transports me from a world of chaos into a more orderly place. Our teacher, Mr. Goodner, helps us a lot by not just giving feedback on our debate technique, but also discussing the reality of topics in the world that we’re debating.
Why was the debate showcase important for the SA Harlem East debate team?
It was a big step for the SA Harlem East debate team. Being on the debate team for the past five years, I can remember how we’ve always been the kids that just liked to work really hard. But here we are five years later — we’re on a stage in the Capitol!
Have you watched the Presidential debates?
Yes I have. I feel that Donald Trump just tries to find loopholes while speaking and uses them to his advantage. But you could see that as long as Hillary Clinton was doing her job on stage, she looked very happy.
What’s your dream job?
Ever since I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be on Broadway. To have the opportunity to act like someone completely different than who you are fascinates me. Dancing and singing are one of life’s best escapes.
What are your other passions?
I’m in love with dance. We all have passions that one day we discover. I discovered the art of putting all of your sorrows and happiness into movement. Dance for me is an artform of observing the world and then putting what you feel from seeing it into movement. Dancers have one goal: to capture what we feel and have it flow out of us in the most “imperfectly perfect” way.