Making the Grade: Debate program draws clever, competitive kids

Additional information about Westminster’s debate team is online at

As the director of debate for the Westminster Schools, Jordana Sternberg works with a singular set of students, teens who are not just academically focused but who also get a kick from outsmarting people.

“Someone with a competitive personality usually makes a great debater, so I look for kids who are a little too clever and very smart,” said Sternberg, who has led the extracurricular debate program for two years. “It’s not as much about speaking, but more about having that type of personality and an interest in world events.”

Sternberg is also looking for students who can add to the Buckhead school’s long history of debating team success. The program, established in 1960, has amassed numerous national and state awards, including the National Debate Coaches Association national championship last year. Even in her days as a high school debater, Sternberg knew about Westminster. “I went to school in Massachusetts and knew how strong the teams were,” she recalled.

While working as an attorney for 10 years, Sternberg stayed involved in the debating world as a coach, but she gave up her day job to work with students full-time.

“That’s how much I value it,” she said. “I found it so rewarding and saw the change it made in the students. The thinking, research and analytic skills debate provides cannot be duplicated by any other activity. It’s a learning experience that doesn’t happen in the classroom.”

Sternberg works with 30 high schoolers and a few eighth graders during free class periods and for two to three hours at the end of the day. They also spend free time researching topics they’ll be debating, and many devote their summers to camps where they can work with debate coaches.

“Their commitment is so strong, but they do it because they’re competitive, not to get a grade,” said Sternberg. “After camp in August, we meet before school starts to get ready for our first tournament in early September. Different pairs will go to different events throughout the year, up to the tournament of champions in May.”

Junior Katie Carithers got hooked on debate in middle school and is now on her third year of competing on the national circuit. The 16-year-old from Marietta was captivated by the idea of arguing issues in public, even though she didn’t consider herself a strong speaker.

“When I first started, it was a struggle to speak in front of people and to project confidence, but I stayed in it because it pushed and challenged me,” she said. “I’ve gained confidence from doing it, and my interest in politics and governmental issues has grown as I’ve gotten more involved. Even outside debate contests, those issues are more important and relevant to my life now.”

In addition to after-school practices, Carithers spends time on the weekends prepping and practicing for speeches. “We have hundreds of files we read through to pull out information and learn about the issues,” she said. “That takes as much work as one of my AP classes. But the great thing about it is the harder you work, the more you win. It’s a very rewarding activity.”

Being part of the debate team has also allowed Carithers to join a national community of young scholars.

“We have a community that spans the nation, and some of them are my close friends,” she said. “It’s great to know all these people outside of school. And it’s actually more fun to debate your friends.”