Say What? Meet the walking, talking argument for Denver's Urban Debate League

"We need the brightest minds at Manual," Smith told the students.

Several of them were in the room already — like eighteen-year-old Jessica Keys, a loud senior who favors wearing bows in her dreadlocks and was on track to graduate early. Or sixteen-year-old Scarlett Chavez, a petite sophomore whose politeness belies the fact that she can command the attention of an auditorium full of her rambunctious peers when she wants to. Or sophomore Kendale Bryant-Townsell, who at sixteen has plenty of swagger — and a detailed plan to earn his MBA and start his own aerospace-engineering business.

And the Harrison siblings.

Opponents pick their words carefully against the Manual High School debate team.
Anthony Camera
Opponents pick their words carefully against the Manual High School debate team.
Manual debate team coach Charlie Smith knows what he likes when he hears it.
Anthony Camera
Manual debate team coach Charlie Smith knows what he likes when he hears it.

******

Teague and Theron came to Manual as freshmen three years ago from Omar D. Blair Charter School in Green Valley Ranch. Blair was the third middle school that Teague had attended. For Theron, who repeated eighth grade in order to have, as his mother, Cordellia, says, "another year to mature," it was the fourth. "Theron is not a traditional learner; he never has been," she explains. "Once he has it, homework does him no good. He's not going to do it."

"That's the story of my life," Theron interjects, popping out of his chair in the family kitchen. "I still go through that. My homework isn't that great. My classwork is okay. But I'm always, always, always in the top 5 percent of the test scores."

Teague, on the other hand, "tends to play the game better," Cordellia says. Introspective and self-motivated, she has turned boredom into opportunity. She's one of only two juniors in the entire school taking advantage of a program that allows her to take classes at Community College of Denver; she's currently studying English and psychology.

"My grades are pretty much always wonderful," Teague says.

In many ways, brother and sister are opposites. Theron is social; comfortable in his own skin, he's able to relate easily to both adults and peers. At debate tournaments, he blends in to the raucous scene, scarfing food, making jokes and flirting. At home, Theron says, "I'm either texting or asleep." On a recent weekend, he spent several hours playing online video games against his friends.

Teague, meanwhile, prefers to be by herself at tournaments, listening to music on her headphones or drawing in Microsoft Paint. On her own time, she reads and writes in her journal. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of the Harry Potter series and plans to one day live in South Korea. "The way it's advanced technologically over the last fifty years has been astounding," she explains. "As a country, they have an impeccable work ethic. And the guys are really hot." Especially, she says, a South Korean rapper with a Justin Bieber haircut named G-Dragon.

But the Harrisons also have several important things in common, not the least of which is their parents — and in particular, their mother, who is dedicated to making sure her kids have the same opportunities as other, wealthier kids. That's part of the reason she sent Teague and Theron to Manual, a school that, despite recent struggles, boasts an impressive list of graduates. Former Denver mayor Wellington Webb graduated from Manual, as did writer Ted Conover and National Public Radio correspondent Scott Horsley. Another alum is Rob Stein, who was brought in as principal in 2007 to resurrect Manual after the district shut it down because of poor performance. (Stein is no longer at the school.)

"I felt like if that school could get back to that place, I wanted my kids there," says Cordellia, a schoolteacher herself who taught kindergarten and first grade for Denver Public Schools but was laid off last year. "And I knew that because they were reopening it, they were going to pour a lot of money into it."

Manual is also home to Colorado Youth at Risk, a program that connects students with adult mentors. Both Teague and Theron participate. Theron's mentor is an attorney. Teague's mentor is a professor at the University of Colorado Denver.

"They're networking," Cordellia says. "And this is what you see in wealthier families — the networking starts in high school. There's going to be a select few kids from their graduating class that are going to make it. I want my kids to be a part of that."

That's also the reason she pushed them to debate, as she had done in high school and college in Kansas. "I really was a tiger mom about debate," says Cordellia. "I'm like, here's an opportunity. I'm not going to let you miss it."

At first, Teague and Theron were skeptical. "I thought it was for nerds, really and truthfully, so I didn't want to do it," Theron says.

And it showed. Regis University debate coach Rob Margesson, who volunteers with DUDL and encourages his college debaters to do the same, recalls that two years ago, Theron was "a complete wild child. I got many, many phone calls from Charlie at the very beginning of, 'I've got this kid and he won't listen, and he won't make the grades, but I know he's really smart. What do you do?'"

Theron's answer was to quit. He left the team in the second semester of his freshman year.

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3 comments
Gsluvs4me
Gsluvs4me

Manual began a journey to transformation under Rob Stein and the school is still in the process of proving that our public schools are worth saving not shutting. Go T-Boltz! I wish that Rob Stein had been able to complete this Journey with Manual High School. Thank You for coming back for 3 years to your old High School we wish you well.

chc
chc

Okay, another comment besides the geography lesson---it is a shame that so many people in northeast Denver are choicing out instead of fighting to make the schools in our neighborhood more rigorous. what happened to Theron when he experienced a whole grop of kids smarter than he was--he made himself get smarter. Many families have walked away from schools just because there are minorities or lower economic classes in them. Neighborhood public schools NEED students at ALL academic and socio-economic levels for most to gain.

Another great thing about Manual---SMALL class sizes . . . with lots of adult volunteers from the neighborhood to provide tutoring, mentoring and one-on-one classroom attention. And the teachers are an amazing team of educators!

Too many people still consider Manual what it was like when it was shut down. It has become (again) a safe, productive place for students to flourish in high school.

chc
chc

Manual High School is NOT in Five Points. It is in the (much tamer-sounding) Whittier neighborhood. I know Five Points sound lots tougher, more urban, but it is NOT correct!

For future reference, Whittier's boundaries are: 23rd Ave. on the south, Martin Luther King Blvd. on the north, York St. on the east and Downing St. on the west.

 
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