An educator is working to bring a new charter school with a focus on speech and debate to south Fort Worth.
Chaneka Rich, the proposed superintendent, wants to build children’s confidence so they can advocate for themselves — and succeed later in life.
The Village for Speech and Debate is one of five proposed charter schools — and the only one slated for Fort Worth — the State Board of Education will consider at its June 23 meeting in Austin. The proposal comes at a time when board members have grown pickier about which charter schools are approved.
The school is planned to start with 258 students in pre-K through second grade, according to its charter application. Officials plan to offer pre-K to sixth grade. The school’s enrollment capacity is proposed to be 1,000 students.
Rich expects her charter school to bring speech and debate to an area of Fort Worth that is nearly 80% people of color and where nearly half of residents live below the poverty line.
Many of the children who live in the area likely won’t have access to speech and debate until much later in life — if at all, Rich said. Because of that, the Village for Speech and Debate plans to offer transportation for students. Texas does not require charter schools to provide some services, including transportation.
Studies show that high school students who participate in debate see improvements in their reading skills, grades, attendance, self-esteem and interest in school, according to Stanford University’s National Forensic Institute.
Speech and debate has been found to help students know how to identify evidence, better evaluate the credibility of information, look at an issue from different perspectives, ask good questions and form and communicate a point of view, according to a 2022 doctoral dissertation from the Teachers College at Columbia University.
However, little to no research has been conducted on how teaching speech and debate can affect elementary students, according to the dissertation. Most studies examine high school students because that is when programming is usually offered.
She has told parents how her proposed school would have helped her through so many moments in life when she needed to speak out, but just couldn’t. Growing up, Rich’s grandparents reminded her that children are to be seen, not heard — a phrase she stills hears today.
Through the refrain, Rich learned that words have power.
“When it was time to use my voice in meaningful ways, I didn’t have the same experience as some of my affluent peers because I didn’t have that confidence in that practice that they had been given,” Rich said.
State Board of Education seeks more teeth
The school’s path to opening for the 2024-25 school year is not clear yet. The 15-member State Board of Education has been pickier about which schools are approved as some members seek more teeth to act as a check on charters.
In 2022, five proposed charters were recommended for approval to the State Board of Education. Only one wasn’t vetoed, the Academy of Visual and Performing Arts in Fort Worth.
Rich knows her school does not have a guaranteed approval. But she hopes the Village for Speech and Debate gets a thumbs up from board members in its first go.
“I honestly can’t predict what it would be but my hope would be that they see the impact that we can potentially make in our ZIP code and see the potential for this to be great for kids,” Rich said.
Ahead of the start of the regular legislative session, the State Board of Education told lawmakers it had two priorities for charter schools: Give members more oversight over the expansion of existing charter schools and require charters to follow the same rules as independent school districts.
Legislators did not pass any legislation centered on the pair of priorities.
However, the priorities show how some State Board of Education members want more say in the approval of charter schools.
Currently, the Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath approves charter schools after months of interviews and evaluations. The State Board of Education only decides whether to let charter schools move forward or veto the commissioner’s decision after members ask applicants questions.
Already established charter schools can add more campuses without any approval from the State Board of Education. Only an OK from Morath is needed for a charter school network to grow.
State Board of Education member Pat Hardy, R-Fort Worth, has called for more accountability for charter schools. Hardy represents part of Fort Worth and half of Tarrant County on the board. She did not respond to a Fort Worth Report request to comment.
“There’s really no one stopping them from expanding anywhere they want to right now because the state board doesn’t have control over them,” Hardy previously told the Report.
June’s round of proposed charters will be the first for the board since six new members joined in January after their elections in November. Republicans have 10 seats to the Democrats’ five.
‘A deeper understanding’
The foundations of speech and debate will be taught in pre-K through second grade, then the students will put those skills to use in third through sixth grade.
Students will learn how to identify a claim, evidence and warrant, the assumption on which the claim and evidence depend.
Rich used math as an example. A student should be able to explain that the question in the math problem is the claim, their answer is the warrant, and the evidence is what in the problem shows their answer is true.
The strategy builds with each grade level. The school will test students through a traditional standardized test, including the state’s. However, some tests will be debates instead of pen and paper.
Teachers won’t grade the debates — the community will, Rich said. Adults will use a rubric from the school and grade students’ performance.
Students will be put into teams and explain to the audience how they arrived at their answers, why they are correct and the opposition is incorrect.
“We will give them a deeper understanding of the material because they’re having to internalize it and dig deeper than just one plus one is two. Why? What in this situation gives you proof that one plus one is two?” Rich said.
‘Have her own perspective’
Arlington parent Grace Jackson is disappointed she will not be able to enroll her two children in the Village for Speech and Debate. They will be too old for the inaugural class, if approved.
Before moving to Arlington, Jackson’s son and daughter attended an Uplift Education school in Fort Worth where Rich was principal. Rich, who currently works for Uplift, built a school climate that made students feel like they belonged and where she knew each student individually.
The environment at Rich’s school helped Jackson’s daughter come out of her shell and become more confident, the mother said. Jackson expects a similar environment at the Village for Speech and Debate.
“Thinking of what I want my pre-teen daughter growing up in this day and time to learn, I want her to be able to advocate for herself, to feel confident in a space, to engage in conversation and have her own perspective,” Jackson said.
What Jackson described are the lessons Rich hopes her students receive from the Village for Speech and Debate.
In a few days, Rich will know whether her hope can become a reality.
Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.