PALOMINAS, Ariz., has always been only nine miles from Mexico, but it wasn't until 1981 that the school district decided to take advantage of it. A student exchange would broaden students' education, thought district superintendent Gene Brust, so he formed a committee to look into it. Palominas parents were alarmed: Will our children be shot crossing the border? Isn't the water dangerous to drink?
Parents in Sonora, Mexico, were equally concerned: Might our children be accosted by drug-dealing pornographers on the school playgrounds of the rock-and-roll society to the North?
Such were the stereotypes that the Hands Across the Border program has helped to erase.
A visit to Sonora by the Palominas planning committee completely changed the direction of the parents' thoughts about Mexico, Mr. Brust says. ``They realized that they and the Sonorans had common desires, expectations, and goals for their children in the areas of education, family values, and community social structures.
``It caught fire with one or two other schools, won a few awards ..., and seemed to just take off from there,'' Brust says. Since that first trip in 1981, about 1,000 students have participated in the exchanges.
The Hands Across the Border Foundation was established two years ago by Brust and others to develop a model exchange program, and to help other schools secure funding for such programs. The foundation provides a workshop and consultant to help schools work with their school boards and communities.
``Most importantly, we made new friends,'' says Cecelia Pasquiera, a student from Arizpe, Mexico, who participated in a 1986 exchange. ``We understand each other, even though we speak different languages and have different customs. For me, in particular, it's a way to move us to learn English in order to better communicate.''
Three years ago, Cecelia and her sixth-grade classmates visited Palominas. Cecelia stayed with Becky Pickett, then a 13-year-old student from Palominas, and went to her school.
``Playing on the school's computers was the highlight of US school for me,'' says Cecelia. ``The countries are so close to each other, yet very different. I learned about American food, families, and the way of getting along together. Becky and some fifth-grade classmates then visited Arizpe for three days and two nights. Becky stayed with Cecelia and her parents, played baseball in the plaza, visited Cecelia's school, and participated in a cultural night there.
Becky's schoolmates presented flags and information in Spanish about other foreign countries. Cecelia and her classmates gave their new friends small decorated boxes they had made and filled with Mexican candy. ``Language didn't seem to be a problem - if we couldn't figure out how to say a word, we'd sign it,'' says Becky. ``The best part for me was seeing how they live differently, and how close their family is.''
Most participating students know a little of the others' language. English is a required subject in Mexican schools, though Spanish is not in Arizona's. However, most of the schools involved in the student exchanges have set up volunteer programs so the children are exposed to some basic Spanish vocabulary before visiting Mexico.
Hands Across the Border has been endorsed by the Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction and the Sonoran Secretary of Education.
Mr. Arturo Silva, undersecretary of education for the state of Sonora, and a board member of the Hands Across the Border Foundation, says, ``It is most wonderful for children to learn to get along better and talk about the same things. We are very excited with the success of the program and are looking forward to expanding to more states.''
The first International Conference for Hands Across the Border was held in Guaymas, Sonora, in March.
``More and more people are concerned with where we are going in our relationships with Mexico. We received inquiries from schools in California, Texas, and Canada about the model we've developed,'' says Carlos Nagel, the program's consultant. With six new schools joining the program at the conference, there are now 40 schools participating.