Birmingham SpeakFirst salutes ‘the Magnificent Seven’

Birmingham SpeakFirst salutes ‘the Magnificent Seven’
Ramsay High School's Brooklin Ballard and Shae Thomas are all smiles at a ceremony honoring the 2018 SpeakFirst high school graduates. (contributed)

When eighth-grader Brooklin Ballard found out she had made Birmingham’s SpeakFirst debate team, she was at a loss for words.

“We had a lot of talented kids apply,” SpeakFirst founder Stephen Black told her and her mother. “In your case, this was not a difficult decision. And we all decided we really, really want you on the team.”

At that moment, Brooklin and her mother looked at each other. “And all we did was smile,” Brooklin recalled. “I wanted to show how appreciative I was, but I couldn’t really say anything because I was in shock.”

Brooklin has had no problem speaking in the more than four years since then, through thousands of hours of practice and preparation and dozens of debate competitions.

Last month, Brooklin and six other SpeakFirst team members – dubbed the Magnificent Seven – graduated from high school. At a recent event at the Lyric Theatre in Birmingham, the seven announced their college plans and scholarship totals. Together, they garnered more than $600,000 in scholarship dollars, led by Brooklin’s $260,000. The Ramsay High School graduate will attend Yale University.

Other team members’ universities and scholarship money:

SpeakFirst, now in its 14th year, is a competitive debate program for Birmingham high school and middle school students. The program uses debating to improve students’ vocabulary, critical thinking, speaking ability and language and study skills, according to Sarah Louise Smith, the executive director of Impact America. An AmeriCorps program, Impact America has a staff of more than 70 college graduates who help college students address community needs through service projects such as vision screening for preschoolers, tax preparation for low-income families and the SpeakFirst debating program.

SpeakFirst also includes standardized test preparation training, summer internships and guidance on admissions and scholarships from college counselors.

“Each unique aspect of the SpeakFirst program, in addition to debate training, responds to the critical needs and deficits of extracurricular opportunities in low-income communities,” Smith said.

SpeakFirst is a collaborative effort among Birmingham City Schools, Architecture Works (where students practice), the Birmingham Division of Youth Services, UA, UAB, the University of Alabama in Huntsville, and many area law firms and businesses, including Alabama Power.

Since 2004, 46 SpeakFirst graduates have received more than $5.5 million in scholarships.

A new video, “SpeakFirst Class of 2018: Brooklin & E’shandae,” profiles the co-captains of this year’s debate team. In their junior year, Brooklin and E’shandae qualified for the 2017 National Championships as one of the top four teams of the 48 competing in the Deep South District Tournament.

The film is one of three profiling this year’s SpeakFirst senior class and their development over the past four years. Watch here.

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