When they were first asked to work together, as teammates, Brooklin Ballard and Shae Thomas said no. Why mess up a good thing?

“We’ve known each other since sixth grade, and we’re too good of friends to get any work done,” Shae explained.

Part of the SpeakFirst team of debaters from across the city of Birmingham, Ballard and Thomas proved their point in fall competition. The chemistry in life didn’t match up on the podium. Still, their coach, Rachel Puckett, insisted they give it another go.

Now the duo – juniors at Ramsay High School in Alabama’s largest city, are headed to compete in the National Tournament in June after finishing in the top four at the Deep South District Tournament in early spring. They went 6-1, finishing second.

SpeakFirst: A Birmingham Student Debate Initiative consists of 20 students from city schools. For three days a week, three hours at a time, the team practices in a business building wedged between the University of Alabama at Birmingham campus and the city center.

A project of Impact Alabama, the mission of SpeakFirst is to engage talented and motivated Birmingham middle and high school students in a competitive debate program. Competition and prep require extensive research, media literacy, reading comprehension and a willingness to put it all on the line making a compelling argument in front of groups of strangers.

Puckett, a recent University of Alabama graduate, is one of four full-time coaches.

“We work together to co-edit their work and collaborate,” Puckett said. “We also have resources online and the support of Jay Rye at Montgomery Academy, who has a national reputation in the debate field.”

Birmingham City Schools have faced challenges in recent decades, both with enrollment and ever-changing leadership. So Impact Alabama and SpeakFirst focus a shining a light on some of the system’s brightest stars. In the case of Brooklin and Shae, they attend Ramsay, a magnet school known for academic success.

“Every school system in Alabama, no matter how poor performing, has kids who want to raise the bar,” said Stephen Black, executive director of Impact Alabama. “SpeakFirst gives these students a chance to work together and compete together for Birmingham on an academic level.”

An attorney and the grandson of former Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, Stephen Black has reached out to and found support in the corporate community, including Regions Bank. Regions’ Boots Gale and Keith Herron, competitive debaters, mentor the team and have judged the team’s practice debate rounds.

“The corporate support is huge, obviously,” Black said. “It allows us to reach out, not only to the high school kids but to younger students and get them involved earlier.”

Debate has opened a new world to many of the students. Of the 39 graduates of the SpeakFirst program, 36 have college degrees or are on pace to graduate.

“Last summer, I went to Virginia and (Washington) D.C. for debate camps,” Brooklin said. “And this summer, I’m headed to Harvard. Before I joined here, I’d never flown before.”

The seventh of 14 children in her family – a group affectionally known as the Ballard Bunch – Brooklin figured debating was natural. “Being the middle child made me more outgoing.”

Shae was captain of her chess team in middle school but was barred by her mother from competing in debate until high school. Now, her achievements in competition will open academic doors she didn’t expect just a few years ago.

“I’m excited about college,” Shae said. “And I plan on letting other people pay for my college.”

Thanks to Puckett’s persistence, the duo has been reunited for competition. Next stop, nationals, where they have an advantage. For the third time in 13 years, the National Tournament will be held in their hometown.

“I’m not nervous,” Shae said. “But I will be anxious going into the rounds. Once it starts, though, you’re fine.”

For the next two months, the pair will keep up on current topics from across the globe and hone their research skills once they receive the debate topics. Shae’s key role is as the first speaker. She sets the tone. Brooklin is the rebuttalist. “If you get in an argument and you’re not prepared you can get embarrassed very easily,” Brooklin said.

They’ve remained best of friends. Instead of goofing off, they’ve found they are like-minded, competitive and work together well.

Seeing the two work together and succeed has been everything Rachel Puckett expected.

“This is why we’re here: For the students who want to learn more and read more and make an impact on the world we live in,” Puckett said.

Regions supports Birmingham City Schools and Impact Alabama.