Fairhill students make a hit with Biden

From left, Raul Ortiz, Ryan Llanos , Camila Solivah, Ismael Rivera, Damaris Davis, Justin Rivera, and Jacob Davil, students in Hillary Linardopoulos' third-grade class at Julia deBurgos School, hold the letters that they wrote to Vice President Biden, who answered some in his audio series. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ /Staff Photographer
From left, Raul Ortiz, Ryan Llanos , Camila Solivah, Ismael Rivera, Damaris Davis, Justin Rivera, and Jacob Davil, students in Hillary Linardopoulos' third-grade class at Julia deBurgos School, hold the letters that they wrote to Vice President Biden, who answered some in his audio series. MICHAEL S. WIRTZ /Staff Photographer
Posted: May 19, 2013

Raul Ortiz is going to be honest: When he wrote a letter to the vice president of the United States about gun violence, he didn't expect a response.

"He has a lot of things to do," Raul, 9, said.

But on Friday, Raul and his third-grade classmates at Julia deBurgos School in Fairhill found themselves having their frank, poignant, well-crafted missives become a subject of the White House audio series "Being Biden."

In the series, available online at www.whitehouse.gov/being-biden, Vice President Biden uses photos and audio to describe "where he was, why it matters to him, and how the experience fits into the broader narrative of this administration." (Past episodes have touched on John McCain, the HBO show Veep, and Biden's attendance at the installation of Pope Francis.)

In the deBurgos piece, "Gems of Wisdom," Biden uses the students' letters to highlight the Obama administration's attempts to tighten gun laws.

"My mom used to have an expression: 'Out of the mouths of babes come gems of wisdom,'" Biden says in the two-minute episode. "And these little kids, they understand, because they've seen the effects of gun violence in the streets."

Biden goes on to read excerpts from several letters.

On Friday, those in teacher Hillary Linardopoulos' excited and proud class explained why they decided to write about gun violence, and why to Biden.

In January, they learned about the inauguration. They loved videos of the president and vice president dancing with their wives at inaugural balls, but the more they heard about Biden, the more they felt an affinity for him.

A Scranton native and longtime Delaware resident, he likes Philly sports, like them. More important, he cares about a topic they know a lot about. Their K-8 school at Fourth Street and Lehigh Avenue is a safe haven for students - 97 percent of whom live in poverty - but guns weigh heavily on their minds, the students said.

"A lot of stuff happens near me - police stuff," said Jacob Davila. "People start shooting out of nowhere."

Ismael Rivera shrugged.

"It sometimes happens on our block," Ismael said. "So we wrote about what we knew."

Though the letters went through multiple drafts - they were writing assignments, after all - the students' ideas were their own from start to finish.

Jacob suggested a direct approach to the vice president: "You can go out on the stage and just say, 'I want people to stop using guns.' "

Damaris Davis asked Biden, "Why do people use guns, and why do they kill people? Also, why don't people be kind to each other? I'm kind to everyone."

Ismael told the vice president that "I heard you take care of gun violence. Maybe no guns at all, but the police can get safety guns. That will change the world."

At the conclusion of the brief audio clip, Biden, who was invited to deBurgos and said he would try to visit, noted that "there's a lot we can do and still allow people to hunt, still allow people to wisely use guns. These kids, these kids just don't understand why we can't do something."

When she assembled the carefully written letters into a binder and mailed them to the White House, Linardopoulos warned the students that they were unlikely to get a response.

And she was floored when she got the call from Biden's office this week, not only because her students had won the attention of the vice president but because it represented a remarkable streak for her personally.

For three years running, Linardopoulos' students managed to get Mayor Nutter to come to read books to them. Last year, they garnered the interest of shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who hosted her class at a Phillies game.

It's her job, Linardopoulos said, to highlight her students' potential and their voices.

"If people know what is happening at a school in North Philadelphia," Linardopoulos said, "people will care."


Contact Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146, kgraham@phillynews.com or on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles.

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