A Philly Teen's Letter About Life in a Violent City Is Hand-Delivered to President Obama

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 42 | Posted Jun. 20, 2012

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Edgar Pagan, 18: “President Obama, I ask you to please, nationwide, at the very least, start putting an emphasis on the urban public school system in America ... ”

Photo by Karrisa Olsen

Four people in 18-year-old Edgar Pagan’s life had been shot to death on the streets of Philadelphia by the time he graduated high school last week. While reflecting on his time at Girard College—a 1-12 boarding school for kids with high grades who come from families with low bank accounts—Pagan realized he wanted to write his thoughts on his life and these deaths and the wheel of fortune, the roulette wheel really, that separated them. He just wasn’t sure where to share those thoughts.

A while ago, NewsWorks and PlanPhilly journalist Amy Quinn visited the school. Pagan, assigned to be her student guide, mentioned his interest in writing the story. Knowing I report on urban violence, Quinn told me about Pagan. A few weeks later, I was chatting with photographer Zoe Strauss when she mentioned that she’d just scored an invitation to the White House’s LGBT Pride Month Reception.

Strauss said that if she was going to get to meet President Obama, she wanted to bring other voices from Philadelphia along with her, and asked me if I knew anyone who would like to write a letter to Obama. Remembering Pagan, I said yes.

A few phone calls, emails and a trip running across campus later, Pagan was found in the chapel getting ready to walk down the aisle for graduation. Afterward, he wrote down all the thoughts that had been swimming through his head as he prepares to head to Rutgers in the fall. Last Friday, Strauss personally delivered that letter to the president.

This is what it said:


Dear President Obama,

Philadelphia was once known for its brotherly love and Independence Mall. Now, it is more known for its violent people and poor elementary education. The people of Philadelphia have been plagued by high crime and the murder rate and the failing schools stretching citywide.

I was one of the lucky ones.

I attended Webster Elementary School until fourth grade, when my mother realized how unfulfilling and unsuccessful the Philadelphia public school system was, and still is. I was moved to Ascension of Our Lord School, where I received the education the youth of this city needs, although it was still a very poor school. Once I graduated with honors, I attended Girard College. I graduated with a 3.5 GPA on June 7, 2012. I cannot stress how much Girard College has influenced and turned my life completely around. It has shaped me into a better young man than I would have ever been. I realized this during my freshman year.

On Oct. 11, 2008, I was at home on Jasper Street in Kensington standing near my room waiting to use the bathroom, when my mother told me that my cousin Polla has been shot. Then my grandmother called me and told me that the shots were fatal, and that he drew his last breath near A Street on the north side of Philadelphia. As it turns out, he was shot for placing a beer bottle on the neighbor’s steps, not knowing the fatal consequences he would have to face later on. He was about 34. His birthday was only a few days away. The suspect was just a kid like me, about 18-21 years old. His mother lived in the house where the bottle was placed.

Now, people who read this might say that I am just another person complaining about the school system. But no one can deny that if that kid received a quality education and found a passion for learning, like so many whose parents pull them out of the public school system, he would not have been in and out of a jail cell since he was 15 and the life of my cousin Polla would have been spared.

But even the loss of my own blood could not match the loss I faced, and more importantly, the loss the whole Hispanic community of North Philadelphia faced, during my senior year at Girard College.

I remember Jan. 11, 2012, as if it was yesterday. I was in my dorm room on my laptop when I began to see Facebook status updates saying, “R.I.P. Javy, Donti, and Fatty.” There were too many status updates to count. The names sounded familiar, so I looked up the news story and that’s when I saw their faces: They were three good friends and three young boys. Sixteen-year-old Javier Orlandi and 14-year-old Joshua Soto, the one I was closest to, were pronounced dead at the scene. Dante Lugo, 14, fought for his life in St. Christopher’s Hospital. Facebook pages to support their family were set up, such as “Pray For Donti.” Everyone in the neighborhood gathered outside the hospital in support, but he eventually drew his last breath in that hospital bed and was taken off life support.

Memorial services were set up throughout all of North Philadelphia. One in particular caught everyone’s attention. A memorial was set up near the crime scene in Juniata Park. People came to pray, to remember, to weep, to place candles and teddy bears, even to shoot music videos in honor and to remember the boys. I attempted to attend the memorial service that Friday but, like everyone else, I was crying and mourning way too much to go anywhere. I drove by and broke down into tears.

I cannot fully blame the boys or the alleged murderer, Axel Barreto. The boys were looking for a fight with Barreto’s stepsons over an argument that began on Facebook—and yes, I do understand that if a group of boys wanted to fight your sons, any father or mother would seek to protect his or her own. But what I do not approve of is that now people are too quick to pick up a gun and begin opening fire to resolve their problems. They were only kids. There is no way to justify that murder, whatsoever, at least in my opinion.

Think of the education both sides had. If the boys were well-educated and raised in a neighborhood other than the Badlands, they may have not been so quick to resort to violence during an altercation. They would have had better problem-solving skills. If Barreto received a better education, he might have known that violence is not the way. The Philadelphia School District does not know what effect it has when they have to make cuts on budgets or teachers. These are the long-term effects. Violence, murder, stupidity.

Mayor Nutter, in response to the boys’ deaths, had a speech saying he will make a crackdown on the curfew for minors and on gun violence. I have seen neither. If he is reading this, I urge him to crack down harder and soon, before another entire community loses their young.

President Obama, I ask you to please, nationwide, at the very least, start putting an emphasis on the urban public school system in America to better themselves, to promote schools such as Girard College, and to provide more help to schools such as Girard so that kids, such as the ones stated above, can avoid being on the streets. Also, I ask you to urge the mayor to truly crack down on the curfew and the parents of kids so that tragedies such as this one can be avoided. Please and thank you, sir.

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Comments 1 - 42 of 42
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1. ZS said... on Jun 20, 2012 at 10:28AM

“Thank you for your words, Edgar. I was very proud to have been able to deliver them and I can't thank you enough for spending the time to write a letter to the President.

I delivered several letters, including one from poet CA Conrad:


The letters spoke to a range of issues and all were great. There was one from my mom. And one from me about 15 issues and I could have stretched it to about 100 issues that need attending.

Thank you, Edgar. I hope your letter makes a difference.”

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2. DI$E TRAPUNIT said... on Jun 20, 2012 at 01:53PM

“Hey edgar.......thanks for the support.....I was the one who shot the vidro for the boys.....I could understand why you did not attend...it was sad but it had to be done......keep doing your thing and don't let nobody say you can't bro.....and for who ever did not see the video on youtube look up trapunit angel tearz.......hey edgar request me on fb...facebook.com/dice.trapunit”

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3. Christine Enedy said... on Jun 20, 2012 at 02:32PM


Thank you for your poignant, heartfelt words! It was a pleasure being one of your teachers at Girard. Philadelphia needs more young people who will speak up like you did. This is the only way that change will begin to take place, and people will learn to do the right thing and let healing triumph over killing!

Thanks Again!
Ms. E.”

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4. harrymc said... on Jun 20, 2012 at 03:25PM

“I work with kids 16 to 21 (for a non profit) and I also wish the school district would realize that the staff and the teachers arent all equal, but should be becuase they all affect the lives of the students they serve. I am a non teaching staff person, proud to say I have changed the pattern of ignorance and disrespect for adults. I think using my love of education and with my leadership as a proud father I have made myself an example. .. I promote what Edgar is saying and I remember that shooting in Juniata, I serve that community. At the Olney logan E3 Center, but we can not do it all we need more centers and many more people like me. Stay strong Edgar you gonna be a game changer.”

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5. NaeFree said... on Jun 20, 2012 at 03:45PM

“There are so many reasons to not be proud of being from Philly, Edgar's letter, for the first time in a long time has made me feel like a proud Philadelphian!”

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6. Rae said... on Jun 20, 2012 at 05:36PM

“Well said Ed.”

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7. Mel Bagnell said... on Jun 20, 2012 at 10:25PM

“This is exactly the type of youth we need today. The inner city communities youth will never get better if things such as young kids getting murdered won't stop. I thank you so much for writing this letter, you as a young man has made a big difference.”

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8. Anonymous said... on Jun 21, 2012 at 09:16AM

“I appreciate Edgar's insights into the Philadelphia school system, however it is amazing that there is no accountability for parents and
community. Not once have the parents of these misguided children
been mentioned. It is not the school's responsibility to raise your
children for you. Nothing influences a child more than the people they
live with. BOTH parents, family, community, and finally school have to
participate. I believe there are children that go to the schools mentioned and still do well because of their caring, responsible, and strick parents.
I don't believe it's right or fair for children to grow up in violent areas. But
it's more than the school that should be held accountable. Thank you for reading.”

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9. Anonymous said... on Jun 21, 2012 at 12:42PM

“Maybe the parents should not have the children if they are unable to care for them!! It is not the presidents or Mayors responsibility to keep the children off the streets. As a tax payer, I suggest these parents take responsibility for their children and teach them right from wrong. This letter from the kid means nothing!”

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10. Anonymous said... on Jun 21, 2012 at 01:08PM

“God Bless U Edgar, letter well done. I wish you the best in college, keep your head up & live your life to the fullest & make your dreams come true. Along the way try to encourge & help others see your point of view because it makes a big difference. People fail to realize in the heat of anger and hate anything can happen, when that feeling leaves U then U realize what did I do!!! It's too late, people have to learn how to respect each other & help each other. I live in DE, I have to be honest: I hate Philly, so many bad stories & crimes. We have them here too, trust me it's not a perfect world in the city of Wilmington, DE. REAL MEN, SHOULD TALK IT OUT ANY PROBLEMS OR CONCERNS. TO ME THEY ARE COWARDS BEHIND A GUN & THEN THERE GOES YOUR LIFE... DUMB FOOLS. GOOD LUCK IN YOUR FUTURE & GOD BLESS.........”

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11. Anonymous said... on Jun 21, 2012 at 01:36PM

“Well said Edgar. Don't ever give up speaking out against violence. Beautiful.”

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12. Anonymous said... on Jun 21, 2012 at 01:59PM

“Reading this brought tears to my eyes. Edgar is a courageious young man - hopefully ALL of our governemnt leaders - Democrats, Republicans, Tea Party - whatever will wake up and realize it is time to address our issues in this country instead or trying to score polictical brownie points. As Edgar suggests, starting with a good education can go a long way to reducing many problems. Start supporting the good teachers and help the ones who need it for the benefit of future generations”

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13. Tamika S. said... on Jun 21, 2012 at 02:37PM

“As a graduate of Girard Colleg's Class of 1997,, I am very proud of my fellow Girardian brother. Great job Edgar, keep up the good work! Please do not let anything or anyone stop you from speaking out against the violence that plagues our city. And to the readers, we as adults should encourage, not discourage our youth, that's part of the problem we are having with our future (youth) and violence.”

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14. Anonymous said... on Jun 21, 2012 at 03:13PM

“Great letter and so glad you were pulled up from the ashes. Problem is, we have children raising children out there. It is everywhere, not just in urban areas. To be a parent is to give up who you once were in order to raise that child. Partying and foolishness and irrresposibility have no place in the raising of a child. Being a parent is more important than being CEO of a company and much more difficult...you are growing up another human being and teaching them right from wrong from the very beginning. This is not for the faint-hearted. Don't have children if you just want to "see another you" or to make your partner, yourself or anyone else "happy" just to carry on the bloodlines...this is the most important choice you will ever make...and yes, if you are uneducated about what sex really is, than this is just going to keep perpetuating. They need to teach abstinence before marriage in the schools...we need to try and go back to what God intended.”

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15. Anonymous said... on Jun 21, 2012 at 04:15PM

“This was a great letter and the problem is solely not on the shoulders of the school system. As a teacher within the system, I can say that the school reflect the values of the community and homes in which our children attend. To get children to be educated is a monumental task and school funding while it is an issue is not the biggest one. I think that we have to reevaluate our values because to celebrate and create videos of youth who have perpetrated violence is not the answer. I have been the victim of violence by students and parents who rather than fight for better schools will fight the one who's trying to educate their children. I was saddened to read that one of my students was shot and killed and to see others incarcerated. I believe that my job is to give back to those in my community and I do a very good job. I also see those teachers who because of policy lose heart because we don't have the support of family and community. When Sept. comes though I'll be there again.”

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16. edgar pagan said... on Jun 21, 2012 at 07:00PM

“the letter was written to the president and yes i believe that parents hold.most.of.the blame but the president cannot force the parents to be better caregivers what he can do is better the schools so sorry if u feel that the schools are not to blame but it has to start somewhere if the schools.become better.maybe the parents will be encouraged to better raise their.kids”

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17. David said... on Jun 22, 2012 at 09:16AM

“The President leads, we do. We the people, are responsible. We gush at an internet meme pic where a man is giving up his resort flip flops to a poor homeless girl. We like pics of kittens. We feed mentally ill, homeless people. We can only do so much. Alone. Sometimes it is all we can do, to give a sandwich to a hungry man today and where he will get food tomorrow, is up to him and the next good samaritan. To help an angry man with a gun see the uselessness of this temporary power is very difficult to do until after serious consequences are wrought upon us. There are no easy answers, just many options and they should all be pursued by the rest of us. We cannot do much about anger and violence without the greater community. It means forging relationships with people we don't know and maybe even people we don't like. Our answers to these problems in society are all over the map and no one, not even the President can make us choose the one way. But this letter, it helps by doing something”

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18. SharonG said... on Jun 22, 2012 at 11:03AM

“We as a society are too far away from God...the majority of us are listening to deranged people from Hollywood and the media who are living in dream worlds they have created to escape reality....start reading your bible and going to church! It's about time that people stopped following so called "cool" people...and young people, you're gonna get old eventually just like the rest of us and are going to figure out the really important things in life are the peace that comes from knowing and following God...the world is SEARCHING and SEARCHING...they can't get it from new cars, new houses, new clothes, new vacations, new "hip" friends, drugs, alcohol or smoking...turn back to God and He will give you rest through knowing Jesus Christ!! Don't wait!”

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19. General Washington said... on Jun 22, 2012 at 11:53AM

“Obama and his entire admnistration is nothing short of a complete catastrophic failure...

I bet you $100 he did'nt even read the letter...

Well said, but it's falling on deaf ears...

everything this administration touches turns belly up into a giant mess...

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20. KS Jeffersonian said... on Jun 22, 2012 at 11:55AM

“The thinking of this young man is a good example of the problem. Looking to the President to cure a local problem is antithetical to what made this country great. This attitude did not exist to any large degree until the mid-1960s and LBJ's "Great Society."

The problem starts with too many families in which the father is absent. This has been facilitated by the federal government -- women can have sex without worrying about whether the man will stick around if he impregnates her, and too many men don't feel the responsibility of supporting a child, since the government will take care of any children that result.

Next, there tends to be a reluctance to cooperate with "the man," and a belief that taking responsibility for your own actions, being productive, and obeying the law is "acting white."

Until individual attitudes change, including accepting God's laws for our lives, nothing will change, no matter what the federal government does”

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21. Elf said... on Jun 22, 2012 at 11:55AM

“Dear Mr. President, Mr. Mayor, Mr. Governor, and concerned City Fathers...

Take them off free rein, democracy is not for everyone. Education will not save someone who murders over trifles, or change their "values".

Education like democracy is for those interested in doing the work.”

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22. the Truth said... on Jun 22, 2012 at 12:30PM

“Sounds like a good argument for vouchers and the holding of Public Education Unions responsible for their inaction. As he learned, Those who live like a Thug.....Die like a thug.”

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23. ljd78 said... on Jun 22, 2012 at 01:08PM

“All families in Philly should have the opportunity to send their children to schools other than their government-zoned building. Edgar was blessed with the opportunity to attend a Christian, private school. His friends, cousin, and their murderers were denied any such option -- merely because of their families' income... God bless you, Edgar.”

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24. Major Johnson said... on Jun 22, 2012 at 01:11PM

“What good is hundreds of thousands in education dollars when these kids are growing up with criminals? These kids grow up in what are essentially self created slums, the parents allowing thug kids and thieves to grow up next door or even in the same house with their children. It's doubtful there is anything that can be done until the people who live in these places let the criminals know they won't be tolerated. That requires more than education, law enforcement or money, it requires the people who live there to quit tolerating it. I think both the criminality and the lack of desire for education come from the same place, the war on poverty. By supporting people in poverty rather than allowing them to rise or fall on their merits we perpetuate poverty and even make it acceptable. As someone who grew up poor I can tell you that picking tomatoes in the hot sun all day for next to no money is a great motivator to find a way to better yourself, and your children.”

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25. jfire said... on Jun 22, 2012 at 01:37PM

“Edgar, your letter is beautiful and heartfelt. I am very sorry for the losses you have suffered. I think much credit goes to your Mom for seeing that the school you were in was not good for you and she got you into one that really taught you. I have been around 66 years, and I can tell you, kids grew up in one room school houses and made something of themselves. It was partly the school, which had strict rules and the kids followed them. Now the schools cannot discipline or teach morals at school. You are so lucky to have a Mom who cared about you and taught you to be a moral person. Many kids do not get this upbringing, and if they don't get it at school, they just never get it and never learn to respect life. Any school can be good, if they have the right administration, and teachers. Kids don't need much to learn. But they do need love and to feel safe, and to feel someone cares about them. Kids all want to learn and know about their world.”

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26. Anonymous said... on Jun 22, 2012 at 03:30PM

“Zoe Strauss is the angry, uneducated idiot that gave the 'finger' to Ronald Regan. I would not be proud to be associated with her. I would also not EMPLOY someone like this. google gay-activists-know-nothing-about-reagan-history.”

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27. RICK ALLEN said... on Jun 22, 2012 at 03:41PM

“The whole point and soul of this letter delevered to the White House was tainted and marred by the disgusting actions of those who disrespected the WH with flipping off the pic of President Reagan. All that u acheived was destroyed by this stupid act. U want all ppl in this country to come aboard but doing this has sunk ur ship. EVERYONE is seeing this and its gonna be bad. Im sure u will delete my post right away.”

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28. Al Neu said... on Jun 22, 2012 at 03:44PM

“As long as idiots control our judicial system, criminals will have more rights than law abiding citizens and urban areas will be uninhabitable for most human beings.”

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29. tommyboy said... on Jun 22, 2012 at 04:36PM


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30. Paul A'Barge said... on Jun 22, 2012 at 05:25PM

“Think Zoe Strauss is a class act? Read this, look at the picture of her at the White House and think again.


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31. Edgar Pagan said... on Jun 22, 2012 at 06:12PM

“In response to what KS Jeffersonian stated, we (the minorities) would not feel that we had to rely on the President as much if the people of this country would have not condemned us in to these type of neighborhoods. The reason we do not obey the law or "act white,"if u rather, is because we feel that there is no other wait out. Yes change is supposed to be self motivated but (90 percent of minorities feel that they need some other type of support, an outside inspiration. I grew up without a father because he walked out on me when i was 11 months old. I was so close to falling into the drug life but i saw my mother and how much she struggled and THAT was my outside inspiration to better myself. So i would be able to help better my community, my hometown. Again, like u said we cannot rely on the president to do everything for us i agree with that completely but young kids like me, who grow up without fathers, who go to school and have to worry about getting stabbed need someone.”

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32. TLW said... on Jun 22, 2012 at 11:24PM

“I find it interesting that this boy's life was changed by attending a Catholic school, even though it was poor like the public school. His cousin died in a Catholic hospital, probably as a non paying patient, out of charity. These two institutions could very well close under President Obama due to the HHS Mandate. Rather than go against Catholic beliefs and doctrine, we will close charitable institutions if forced to provide under the HHS Mandate. We believe it our mission to provide for those in need, but not under his direction. I hope more people will realize that the country will suffer greatly if the Catholic Church closes its schools, hospitals and social services.”

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33. pm said... on Jun 23, 2012 at 12:09AM

“Glad you made it bigger but the present should do 1 thing and thats give control of the schools back to the communities keep his hands out of it after that. Obama's word is worse than your friend of the mayor.

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34. A.Francis Doha said... on Jun 23, 2012 at 07:09AM

“You have done your part, GREAT JOB. The rest will follow. GOD BLESS.”

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35. Anonymous said... on Jun 23, 2012 at 08:18PM

“There is a reason why church and state are seperated people (first amendment). Another thing he was a high school student so of course he is going to look at the situation from that standpoint. He can't write to Obama asking him to pass a law to make parents more involved in their child's life that is impossible so he is trying to help in another area the school systems.”

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36. Anonymous said... on Jun 23, 2012 at 11:46PM

“I am American of Latin descent and I have worked in the public school system and many of our hispanic/latino ESL students had this same attitude that I can also hear in your letter, an attitude of entitlement. Sorry, no one gets a free ride. It should alwaysbegin at home. Parents are not teaching their children even the social graces, teachers are to be supported but instead are threatened, read your bible-- it is chock full of answers a d blessings.... This president doesn't even love America --- he is just scrounging for any vote he can get--- but true Americans love America and will fight to keep it "America". Pray and ask God to hel p you understand. Th
Those communities need to gather in unity and form Neighborhood Crime Watch Groups and coop with law enforcement and pray people!! And stand up for your families. And Edgar please check yourself on that attitude of entitlement and instead be grateful/thankful for your blessings and focus on helping others.”

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37. Edgar's mother said... on Jun 23, 2012 at 11:52PM

“Thank you for your opinions, I'm very grateful for the education Ascension's and Girard's offered Edgar. And I'm very proud of the outlet my son is using to express his thoughts, very well said.”

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38. Strauss is pathetic said... on Jun 24, 2012 at 12:04AM

“It's a shame your letter had to be delivered by such a miserable pathetic human being”

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39. Dennis Nelson said... on Jun 25, 2012 at 10:47AM

“Strong, well wriiten letter. As a fellow Hummer, I am proud to see that as much as Girard has changed since we left, some thing have stayed the same. Very proud. Good luck at Rutgers !!!!”

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40. Anonymous said... on Jun 25, 2012 at 09:44PM

“My daughter is a low income wage earner, but because her son is black he does not qualify to go to the catholic schools here in Houston (not that we have not tried) an he is also an AB honor roll student since he was in kindergarden until now in the 8th grade. You should love this country.”

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41. Anonymous said... on Jul 9, 2012 at 07:48AM

“Violence is not a school system problem, it is a parenting problem. Kensington was a good neighborhood 20 years ago, before the hispanics started moving in and destroyed it. The same goes for Feltonville, Juniata and many neighborhoods in North Philly.

Edgar your a bright young man, but still very nieve.”

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42. Ana said... on Oct 5, 2012 at 01:37PM

“I am a former Hispanic Philly public school teacher fortunate to have started my teaching career in the NE where children in the 70's came from homes of concerned nuclear parents. Later I was transferred for "racial balance" to two North Philly schools, one Hispanic, the other Black. It was a nightmare. My resignation letter was ignored and the Philadelphia School District sent me back to my original school. This experience taught me that economically challenged minority one-parent households were the culprits. Parents didn't respect or support the teachers, therefore the overwhelmed teachers (mostly white female) in crowded classrooms thought that minority students were hopeless and gave up on them. Students had no male role models, mothers were young, uneducated, undisciplined absentee parents to "latch key" children who turned to street gangs as a substitute for security and role models. If this trend is not resolved, the cycle will continue on for generations.”


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