Over the years, Jane Rinehart has taught a debater so poor that his home was heated with a kitchen stove cranked up to 500 degrees with its door open and the burners blasting.

Others have spent their early years in foster homes or shuffled among relatives.

But when Rinehart's inner city students go up against some of the top debaters from some of the wealthiest high schools in the country, none of that matters. Her debaters have gained a reputation for winning.

Their stories are told in"Cross-X,"which has won praise from reviewers for its exploration of racial division. The book is published by Farrar, Straus&Giroux.

The first-time author, Joe Miller, was a reporter at an alternative publication, The Pitch, when problems in the Kansas City school district came to a head. Test scores were so low and the administration so unstable that the district faced the possibility of a state takeover if it didn't make changes.

In the midst of the turmoil, the school board demoted the principal at Rinehart's Central High School _ the most expensive of the buildings constructed as part of a $2 billion desegregation plan. The building features an Olympic-sized swimming pool and a field house so large that two full-court basketball games can be played at once. But state education officials determined in a report released in the fall of 2001 that students at the school were making no academic progress.

Truancy officers sometimes dragged students into the school in handcuffs.

Yet, when Miller attended his first school board meeting, the student body president was there defending his school, tooting its ROTC program and award-winning debate team.

"That surprised me, because the image I got in the newspaper was that the school was just completely awful,"he said in an interview."Yet here was this bright, young man talking about all the good things."

Miller didn't know it yet, but his life was about to change.

He decided to shadow some of the top students at the school for an article and was disgusted to see them selecting which classes to attend and earning"As"while completing no homework.

"They are just sort of floating on this false sense of accomplishment and to me that's racism,"he said.

But in Rinehart's messy classroom, he saw something different _ students being challenged. He eventually quit his job at The Pitch and began a book about the squad.

He had planned to remain a detached observer. But soon he was part of the story he was writing. He lobbied school board members and officials with the state's activities association to ease restrictions so the squad could compete against tougher teams at out-of-state tournaments. He also became an assistant coach.

And in the midst of it all, Miller did some soul searching of his own. A product of suburban schools, Miller, who is white, said he was initially uneasy when he walked into the predominantly black Central. He said his perspective changed as he spent time with the students.

"I think if you are going to deal with race, at some point you kind of have to own up to your stuff and realize that race isn't just them, it's us _ white, black, Hispanic, Asian, male, female.

"We are all sort of part of this problem we have, this division and inequality. It's not just a matter of white reporters like me going over to the east side of town and writing yet another story about hope rising out of a dismal place. White folks like me need to step up and say,'I'm part of this equation.'"

He remains an assistant coach and was there as the team competed at an event last month at another Kansas City school, Lincoln College Prep.

The event included teams from the suburbs as well as members of the Urban Debate League, which instructs public school students from poor areas in the traditionally upscale art of debate. Nationally, there are more than 4,000 middle and high school students supported by leagues in 19 cities.

Bow-tie clad Aaron Thomas is one of those debaters. The 16-year-old junior at Central High School had wanted to join the team ever since his brother _ nine years older _ began bringing home tales of fierce public speaking competitions.

Thomas read part of Miller'book and said he found hope in the stories of inner city students succeeeding.

"From where I come from, you tell a person,'I go to Central,'and they're like,'You go to Central.'And I tell them,'Central is not all like that.'"

People, he said,"think just because you're an urban student you can't succeed. I want to be one of those people who prove them wrong, that urban students can do well in life."

He cited his own brother, an electrical engineer, as an example.

As Thomas talked, Rinehart buzzed about, helping her students prepare while also taking time to compliment debaters from other squads.

"I hope they get a better understanding of our students,"she said, pausing from her coaching duties."Our students are so bright and so capable and many times they've just been shoved off to a corner ... and many times these kids have unfortunately given up on themselves. They deserve the same sort of opportunities that suburban kids have and kids who go to posh private schools and kids that go to very exclusive public schools."

Miller, meanwhile, is planning another race-themed book _ this one about an interracial megachurch in Kansas City called the Sheffield Family Life Center.

"There are a lot of ways to approach America. But from my perspective, the most effective conduit to understanding America is racism, racial division, racial inequality,"he said.

"The peculiar institution of slavery as the foundation for this country's economic growth has rendered it so, that racism is our most essential issue. That's the boat we started on and we're still stumbling down that path."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.