Test Time for Schooling Across US-Mexico Line

EVERY school day, Gabriel Martinez drives his three children across the border to a bus stop near this town in southern New Mexico where they pick up transportation to the area's elementary, junior high, and high schools.

Mr. Martinez, an auto mechanic in Palomas, Mexico, and dozens of other Palomas families are taking advantage of a policy in Columbus and Deming, N.M., of accepting Mexican children free at the local schools.

The policy dates from just after World War II, when the border between Columbus and Palomas meant less than the sense of community the residents felt in their desert isolation.

For some that spirit lives on, which is why more than 400 Mexican children wait each morning at the border for the school buses to come and pick them up. ''We're a community here,'' Martinez says. ''There may be a border, but we're really like one.''

But the Columbus version of international community-building may be on its way out. California's Proposition 187 and other efforts to deny services such as education to illegal immigrants are reverberating here.

ADIOS: Students from Mexico are bused home after a day at a US school in Columbus, N.M., as part of a decades-old practice.

More residents - especially newcomers and retirees from places like California and the Midwest, locals claim - are balking at the idea of accepting Mexican children into local schools. ''It's a parochial view, a them-and-us mentality coming in here that's not New Mexico. But it's gaining ground,'' says Columbus Mayor Carlos Ogden.

Last year, a bond issue to build another elementary school and fix the plumbing at the junior high school was defeated. ''People have got the idea that if the Mexican children weren't here, or if they paid tuition, there would be more money for our schools. But that's mistaken,'' says Janet Barney, the principal at the Columbus elementary school. ''Schools in this state are funded through general-receipt taxes, so if we had fewer students or collected tuition the state would reduce our funding by an equivalent amount.''

Now the 400 Mexican children are only accepted in Columbus and Deming schools on a space-available basis. Last year, 17 were ''disenrolled.''

A number of the Mexican children - American citizens by birth - simply moved across the border to the US homes of relatives and returned to school. With the school population growing at about 5 percent annually, space for the Mexican children is being squeezed. ''This is a program that seems destined to die out,'' says Deming School Superintendent Carlos Viramontes.

But some Deming and Columbus educators are not willing to give up what they consider to be the advantages of cross-cultural education. They have come up with the idea for a ''binational school.'' If fewer schoolchildren cross the border, then the binational school will allow the teachers to cross.

''The idea is to continue bringing the Columbus and Palomas communities together,'' says Columbus village trustee Jack Long, a longtime real estate agent here. ''It's seeing education as a community process that can prepare kids from two different but neighboring countries for living in a changing world.''

The idea is simple enough. Bilingual teachers from Columbus spend part of their day in Palomas teaching English or other subjects in English, while their Mexican counterparts do the same in Spanish in Columbus.

The binational school is designed to respond to Mexican parents' desire that their children learn English, while allowing the Columbus children, including a majority who are Hispanic, to become fluent in Spanish.

At first, the binational school met with wariness on the Mexican side - reflecting traditional concerns within government and educational circles about assimilation into the American culture. But the program's emphasis on bilingualism and biculturalism allayed those concerns. Now Mexican officials speak of expanding the program to other border cities, and American educators in other border communities are taking an interest.

''I see this [program] as an idea out of the spirit of NAFTA,'' says Ramon Figueroa, principal of the Palomas elementary school. ''Through more exchanges, we are opening our children to more options in the work world.''

The binational school is looking for $250,000 to fund an interactive-television program, developed by the federal Los Alamos Laboratories in New Mexico, that would beam classes by microwave transmission between the two schools.

Local educators are seeking federal support, even while acknowledging that a national trend opposing bilingual and bicultural education will be difficult to overcome. More than 20 states and 40 municipalities in the US now have laws declaring English to be the official language.

Republican presidential front-runner Bob Dole brought the issue to the forefront last September when he declared at an American Legion convention that ''alternative language education should stop.''

Otherwise, he warned, America is threatened by ''ethnic separatism.''

More recently, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia warned that the kind of linguistic and cultural battle tearing at Canada could surface in the US if multiculturalism is not squashed.

But most educators here say the intent of the binational school is to unite people while gaining enrichment from other languages and cultures. ''This is not divisive. It's about sharing that brings people together,'' says Virginia Sanchez, an assistant professor of teacher education at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Inside the Columbus elementary school, second-grade children surrounded by bulletin boards in English and Spanish chatter away in both languages. Their teacher, Cindy Vega, teaches in both as well.

''These kids aren't losing anything by learning in two languages. It's a gain,'' Mrs. Vega says.

Her theory is that the opposition to bilingual education or integrating immigrants into the schools is a reaction from an English-speaking population ''that is accustomed to holding the power, but is now less in control.''

Sitting down for an English-Spanish story time before a dozen enthusiastic young faces, she adds, ''We have a wonderful multicultural society. It's time America realized that.''

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