The Chicago Debate League

The Chicago Debate League was founded in 1995 to transform the lives of our city’s youth through the power of debate. Since partnering with Chicago Public Schools in 1997, CDL has been able to reach as many as 1,400 at-risk middle and high school students every year, offering them an incredible opportunity that wouldn’t otherwise be available in their communities. With a presence in 75 schools around the city, CDL has grown into the country’s largest and most successful urban debate league.


In addition to its proven academic benefits including higher GPAs, ACT scores, graduation rates, and college admissions, debate teaches important life skills like critical thinking, writing, and communication and fosters personal growth. “Our students tell us that debate helps build their self-esteem,” says CEO Edie Canter, a former debater herself. “It allows them to have a place to exercise their voice and to be heard, and it makes them excited about learning.”

Today, the CDL manages all programming aspects of debate in CPS schools, including recruiting students, training educators, and running after-school programs, competitions, and tournaments. Since its inception, CDL has engaged a whopping 14,000 students in public policy issues, and many have gone on to become active civic participants after high school.

Success Story

One of CDL’s alums is a young man who grew up on the South Side of Chicago. In high school, he described himself as insecure and shy with little motivation — until he started debate. “He completely blossomed! All of a sudden he was on the student council, the president of various clubs, and a tremendous leader in his school community,” says Canter. “He realized he had a voice.” His academic success instilled in him the confidence to apply to college, and he received a full tuition scholarship to the University of Kentucky for debate.

By the Numbers

  • $5 covers 5 percent of the cost of 1 CPS student to participate in debate for 1 year.
  • 14,000 students have been reached since its inception.
  • Debaters are 3 times more likely to graduate from high school and 80 percent more likely to graduate from college.

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