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Trenton Central High School stretches along an entire city block, an aging, red brick building with a faded white-columned entranceway and a soaring clock tower.

The school, on Trenton’s gritty Chambers Street, has struggled for years. Students there are among the state’s poorest, according to state Department of Education data. Overall academic performance is low, and even the building itself is in such poor repair that the school is scheduled to be closed, with most of it planned to be torn down and replaced.

But walk in the front door, pass the security guard and go down the dimly-lit corridors to the classrooms, and you will find bright spots, and good work being done.

Just ask the kids gathered in Room C103 one recent afternoon. That’s where the members of the Trenton Central High School Debate Team meet.

“Despite the negative connotation of Trenton High, there are a lot of smart kids,” said Lexus Bellamy, a 16-year-old Trenton Central High School junior and member of the debate team, who is also president of her class.

“I overcome challenges every day, just when I walk home from school. It’s definitely more challenging going to Trenton High School,” Lexus said. “But we are some strong kids with some tough skin.”

The Trenton High School Debate Team has become a success story in a city better known for poverty, crime, and most recently, the conviction of its former mayor on corruption charges.

In the fall, the team ended its season in second place in the 14-team Colonial Valley Conference, after out-debating most other high schools in the area. The team was recently honored by the Mercer County Freeholders, who gave the members certificates for an “exceptional season” that included defeating a top Rutgers University debate team in an exhibition. A documentary filmmaker is shadowing the students, for a movie about the debaters. And they were just asked to help moderate an upcoming Trenton city mayoral debate.

What a Debate Team Teaches

Students involved in debate teams learn valuable skills.

It is typical in a debate for each team to be presented with a topic – and a point of view, pro or con – that they will debate. Because each team gets a short period of time to prepare, students learn how to research and formulate a persuasive argument quickly. The students gain skills and confidence in public speaking, learn critical thinking skills and acquire the ability to discuss contentious issues calmly. The teens also learn to closely examine arguments they hear and make better informed judgments on issues – a skill all citizens should have.

A Proud Past and Promising Future

The Trenton team has both a proud historic legacy and plans for the future.

Trenton Central High School’s debate tradition began when the school opened in the 1930s, but ended when the team dissolved in the late 1960s. In 1991, social studies teacher Nicholas Cirillo, a Trenton native who was then a substitute teacher, revived the team as a way to challenge his urban students, only to see it fade out again when he was reassigned to another school.

In 2009, Cirillo returned to teaching high school, and launched the current debate team. The first year, he said, the team was “terrible.”

“All the kids were very inexperienced. I don’t think we won a debate,” said Cirillo, who has also known difficult personal challenges: He lost a leg to cancer in 2005.

In 2010, the teacher watched the movie, “The Great Debaters,” and got the idea for the Trenton team to compete against a top collegiate debate team. The film, starring Denzel Washington, chronicles the debate team at a historically black college, that challenged Harvard in the 1930s.

Cirillo called Princeton University.

“I said, ‘would you want to debate?” They said ‘sure,” he recalled. “They were about as gracious and wonderful as you could imagine. They debated us at a public debate, with 125 people watching, and we won. We really won.”

After that, he said, the team took off.

Each year since, he said, the Trenton Central High debaters have capped off their regular season with an exhibition in which they face a college team. One year it was the University of Pennsylvania, another Ivy League school. This year, they took on Rutgers University, debating the question, “Is the pursuit of feminist ideals detrimental to gender equality?”

The debate took place in a packed auditorium at the high school in December. The Trenton students argued the affirmative position.

“The Rutgers kids were really tough. You could tell they knew what they were talking about. But we were at the same level,” said Ana Esqueda, 16, the Trenton team captain.

Attorney Albert Stark, a senior shareholder with the firm Stark & Stark, was one of the judges. He said the Trenton team “had a tough position, but did beautifully.”

“They were able to take a very unpopular proposition, and really develop it well. They spoke very clearly, with terrific eye contact and passion,” he said.

Stark, who is also a Trenton High graduate – class of 1956 – called the debaters, and their coach, an “absolute” success story for Trenton, along with other school accomplishments in areas such as tennis, basketball and theater. “They give the school pride,” he said.

The team has plans to keep that pride going. In the future, Cirillo said Trenton hopes to debate both Yale University and Wiley College, the school featured in “The Great Debaters.” He is also actively recruiting new team members. One recent afternoon, four freshman students came to the debate team classroom to sign up for the team.

“You have to keep building from the ground up,” Cirillo said, welcoming the new students.

The teacher said he hopes that the debate team will raise public awareness of good work being done at Trenton Central. He called the debate team “the ambassadors of Trenton High.

“Urban kids are a different breed of student,” Cirillo said. “Urban kids are unintimidated by status or skill, and they rise to the occasion. That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to challenge them in a major way.”

Gathered in room C103 one recent afternoon, sharing a pizza, the team members talked about their futures. They all are top students, taking Advanced Placement and honors-level classes. All plan to attend college, pursuing careers ranging from political science to biomedical engineering.

The debate team provided them invaluable lessons.

“I feel debate introduces you to new things you don’t learn in school,” said Ana, who hopes to attend an Ivy League school – “any of the Ivies” – and go into criminal psychology.

Alexandra Quaye, 17, said she hopes to go to Rutgers and become a sports psychologist. She said her parents did not attend college, and are bursting with pride that she plans to.

“My parents are really proud of who I am,” she said.

Along with Ana, Lexus and Alexandra, the Trenton team includes junior Kimberly Godoy, 18, and senior Julian Elliott, 18, who is graduating this year and currently fielding college acceptances.

Ana, a straight-A student who is also vice-president of her class, is one Trenton student who has overcome challenges. She and her mom moved from Venezuela when she was in fourth grade, and she entered Trenton public schools speaking only Spanish. Her mother does not speak English, Ana said, but comes to the debates, and cries with pride.

“She is so proud of the fact that as high school students, we are doing so great,” the teen said. “In her time, you wouldn’t think of being on the debate team.”

The team members said many kids in Trenton High face challenges that “teenagers shouldn’t have.” But they were unanimous in one thing: they are proud of their school, and their team’s success.

“Every high school you go to, you’re going to find bad kids,” Ana said. “In this school, there are a lot of kids who are smart.