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N.M. Border Town Proposes Binational School

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A southern New Mexico community is seeking to create a novel binational public school that would receive students and funding from both the United States and Mexico.

Residents of Columbus, N.M., which sits across the border from Palomas, Mexico, argue that a binational school has become a necessity as the boundary between the two countries increasingly blurs.

"We are basically binational now, culturally, economically, and family-wise," said Jack H. Long, the executive director of a community group called the Columbus Independent School District Association.

"We would like to educate our children to understand the culture, the commerce, and the language of both sides of the border," he added.

"We want to have Mexico participating in the education process," Mr. Long said, noting that hundreds of Mexican children already commute across the border to attend school in Columbus each day.

The establishment of the school faces a number of obstacles. Foremost among them is the need for state approval of a separate request by Columbus residents to break away from the Deming, N.M., school system and form their own small district.

The state's approval of the secession request is uncertain, especially given the small tax base of the area around Columbus, which has a population of about 800.

Even if it is approved, moving ahead with the new district's plans for a binational school "would require things I have not even thought of yet," Michael J. Davis, the state's associate superintendent for school-management accountability, said last week.

Nevertheless, Mr. Davis and other state and federal officials interviewed last week reacted favorably to the idea of a binational school, describing it as a logical step given ongoing efforts by authorities in both countries to forge stronger educational links.

And Carlos Viramontes, the superintendent of the Deming school district, said he may press ahead with his own plans for a binational school even if the Columbus residents' secession request is denied.

Close Neighbors

The Deming school district encompasses nearly 3,000 square miles--or all of southern New Mexico's Luna County. Some of its nearly 5,400 students must travel 75 miles by bus to get to school each day.

In many respects, the people of Columbus have felt stronger ties to Palomas than they have to Deming, about 32 miles to the north, where their school district has its headquarters.

Columbus now has one public school, which serves about 360 students from kindergarten through 5th grade.

After that, the town's students must attend public schools in Deming. The long daily bus rides trouble Columbus parents, many of whom feel the Deming office is insensitive to their needs.

Although Palomas has three schools of its own, hundreds of its children routinely cross the border to attend Columbus Elementary School and to ride buses to other schools in Deming.

The state education department has given political and financial support to the Deming district's efforts to educate the Mexican children, and a state judge has upheld the practice as the district's prerogative. (See Education Week, March 17, 1993.)

Because the Palomas schools go only to the 9th grade, and Deming and higher-level Mexican schools are a long commute away, many of its teenagers drop out after their ninth year of school.

"We expect a binational school would capture most of these kids," Mr. Long predicted.

The Columbus Independent School District Association's secession proposal calls for the southern end of Luna County to become a separate school district serving about 630 students. Mr. Long said he envisions the district having one or more binational schools serving students through 12th grade.

"The district itself would eventually become binational," he said.

High-Level Involvement

Gabriela J. Uro, an Education Department official who works on projects involving the United States and Mexico, said the department would likely view creation of a binational school as a local and state decision. Federal officials might become involved, however, if federal money is to be spent on Mexican children, she said.

On the Mexican side, a binational school would need approval from both the secretary of education for the state of Chihuahua and the secretary for the entire Republic of Mexico, according to Alisa Bonilla-Rius, who heads up joint U.S.-Mexican efforts for Mexico's Ministry of Education.

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