SpeakFirst enriches the academic experience of gifted students from Birmingham's public high schools through participation in an "all-star" debate team. This highly collaborative initiative addresses a wide array of needs created by the deficit of opportunities and resources in their local communities, including one-on-one tutoring and mentoring, college admissions and financial aid guidance, standardized test preparation, youth development activities, and summer internships for the debaters.

SpeakFirst Accomplishments
Since the inception of SpeakFirst in 2004, our students have participated in more than 678 debate practices, competed in more than 84 tournaments, and won approximately one-half of their debate rounds.  SpeakFirst’s first six graduating classes (26 students) have earned more than $3.4 million in college scholarships.

SpeakFirst has also established incredible partnerships with The University of Alabama, UAB, and UA Huntsville. Each of these institutions has committed to providing, in perpetuity, full, four-year academic scholarships, including tuition and fees, to Birmingham school students who complete at least three years of SpeakFirst.

SpeakFirst Partners
SpeakFirst is a collaborative effort among Impact Alabama, the Birmingham City School System, Architecture Works (where the students hold debate practice in the afternoons), the Alabama School of Fine Arts, the City of Birmingham Division of Youth Services, The University of Alabama, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, UAHuntsville, and numerous area law firms and businesses.

SpeakFirst is an AmeriCorps program and is funded, in part, through Serve Alabama, the Governor’s Office of Faith-Based and Volunteer Service.  We love our State Commission!

Program Components
Currently, there are sixteen students participating in the SpeakFirst program. The program holds debate practices in downtown Birmingham three days per week for three hours each day. Students compete in at least one tournament each month, typically debating a current events topic related to politics or public policy.

Debate serves as a starting point for developing a stronger overall academic skill set as well as confidence and social dexterity. In addition to cultivating research and debate techniques, the SpeakFirst model engages students in standardized test preparation proven to dramatically improve test scores in planning for college admissions.  Throughout the year, SpeakFirst students also gain valuable exposure to significant historical and cultural locations and events by participating in a required series of field trips. SpeakFirst students participate in summer internship opportunities provided by The Kids & Jobs Program, administered by the City of Birmingham Division of Youth Services. The internships take place in various public, private, and nonprofit sectors of the business community. The students work in four-week paid internships for the purpose of developing professional interests and cultivating occupational resources.

The Need for SpeakFirst
Current educational opportunities for many of Alabama’s gifted children are compromised by a poorly funded public school system and lack of educational choices outside of the classroom, which subsequently limits academic performance and achievement. As is the case in many urban centers across the nation, the consequences of limited learning opportunities for Birmingham’s most promising students can be devastating. Unless their educational experience is one that includes schools with extensive resources and a wide array of opportunities for extracurricular learning, it is unlikely that their social and academic needs will be fulfilled.

In an effort to address these circumstances, the SpeakFirst program provides students with the opportunity and resources to overcome these limitations. The foundational element of the program is competitive debate, which serves as a starting point for developing a stronger overall academic skill set as well as confidence and social skills.


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