TAMPA — In December, Barry Cohen sat inside the WestShore AMC theaters. He had come to watch The Great Debaters, which starred Denzel Washington and chronicled the improbable national championship run of the 1935 debate team from historically black Wiley College. By the end of the two-hour movie, Cohen found himself in line, purchasing a ticket for the film's next show.
That night inspired the high-powered Tampa lawyer to fund a free screening for 200 schoolchildren, most of them African-American or low-income.
And now he and a national organization want to start an urban debate league within Hillsborough schools. Since 1997, the National Association for Urban Debate Leagues has increased the number of African-American and low-income students in academic debate programs from Chicago to Baltimore.
In Baltimore, where the graduation rate is only 34.6 percent — the third-worst in the country, according to a 2007 Education Week study — 90 percent of the city's urban debaters graduate on time, and 90 percent go on to college.
"Debate channels high school kids' competitiveness into a ruthlessly academic activity," said Leonard Gail, chairman of the association's board. "You can't help but be educated and improve your reasoning skills and your research skills with debate. You just can't help it."
It is not clear the kind of commitment the district would have to make for a competitive league to work. And no one knows how much it would cost taxpayers. That, Gail said, would depend on the number of schools that participate. For every dollar the school system invests, the national association contributes at least $1.50, he said.
Brandon and Freedom High already have debate clubs, district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said. So do the International Baccalaureate programs at Hillsborough and King High.
"It sounds like a great opportunity for inner-city kids," Cobbe said. "If there's some kind of grant involved, that will help. The budget situation is very tight this year."
If the cost is too great, officials might consider a pilot version of the program as part of the district's after-school program, Cobbe said. "We have grant funding for that," she said.
Gail and Cohen will make their pitch to Hillsborough officials at 10:30 a.m. Friday.
"All it takes is one identification: 'I want to be like that. I want to have the feeling of winning like they felt in the movie,' " said Cohen. "Before you know it, the child is a winner."
Rodney Thrash can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 269-5303.