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Wise in the Ways of the World

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Crystal Ramos, a 13-year-old freshman, wants to own a record company to produce Tex-Mex music and market it internationally.

James Clark, 15, knows that with an interest in business he'd better start thinking globally. In middle school, he reluctantly took Spanish. But now he's looking forward to studying Japanese, too.

Helga Mezamatilla, whose family moved here from Mexico in 1991, looks forward to a career in engineering or international relations. But her mom wants to be sure that the 16-year-old doesn't forget her heritage. "More than anything, I wanted her to preserve her language and culture and meet kids from all over," she says in Spanish. "She needs to be proud of who she is but also learn about the world and its people."

Welcome to the International School of the Americas, dubbed by some "nafta High," after the North American Free Trade Agreement. Its mission: to give students a global education with a dose of real-world experience. To prepare them for a world where borders are blurred, speaking English alone won't do, and multicultural savvy is a matter of survival.

"I want students who can go anywhere in the world and do anything," says Principal Chula Boyle.

Thinking Global

San Antonio, which in times past has seen its home state's borders flip-flop between the United States and Mexico, has long been a crossroads between the two countries and the rest of Latin America. Trade, especially with neighbors to the south, is one of San Antonio's biggest businesses. All of this makes the city a logical place for the international school to call home.

The school of 231 freshmen and sophomores is tucked away in a 10-classroom arm of the sprawling 2,200-student campus of Robert E. Lee High School. The magnet school, now in its second year, draws half its students from within Lee High's boundaries, 40 percent from across the district, and 10 percent from the rest of the city. Boyle has also worked to recruit a handful of foreign-exchange students to bring local students face to face with their international peers.

The bottom line is these students choose to be here. And that, Boyle says, makes a world of difference. Students apply to the school but are chosen by lottery. About 100 names sit on the school's waiting list; last year, the school had 97 percent attendance. Even as it grows to include grades 11 and 12, the school will likely never enroll more than 425 students.

Still, their faces mirror the city's racial and ethnic diversity: Roughly half are Hispanic, more than a third are white, and most of the rest are black. Their academic backgrounds vary, too. By design, they range from students with learning disabilities to straight-A students who have been labeled gifted and talented.

But every student must meet the "80 standard." If work comes in below B quality, teachers hand it back and ask the students to do it again. Just like in the working world, Boyle says.

Students are expected to take four years of math and science (unless they can reach pre-calculus and physics faster). They must be fluent in Spanish and conversant in a third language by graduation. They stay on top of national and international news because they have to.

Lessons are divvied into nine-week chunks with different disciplines tied together by group projects. Last year, students had to persuade a panel of business leaders, educators, and parents to vote for their country in a bid to host the 2010 Olympic Games. Each group researched a different country's economy, ecology, and politics, its culture and languages, as well as its transportation, sports, and tourism infrastructure. Videos--complete with computer-generated graphics--complemented their presentations.

This year, sophomores will work to identify a local problem--such as homelessness or river pollution--develop a plan to help solve it, and carry out that plan. Students need to grapple with real-world issues, Boyle says, to be able to apply the same problem-solving strategies in places outside the United States.

Crossing Borders

The conversation in Russell Rowton's freshman world geography class jumps from the international TV sensation "Baywatch" to border policies.

"Why do we call them aliens?" asks one girl. "It's not like they're from another planet."

"It's because they're alien to our country," answers another.

Rowton, clad in a T-shirt sporting the flags of the world, nods his head. "OK, here's the question. Do you think San Antonio is going to look more like Boston or Monterrey [Mexico] in 50 years? Are borders going to start meaning more or less because of NAFTA and schools like this?"

To those who follow such trends, the answer to the latter question would be less. "We are seeing more internationalization of the general curriculum in many school systems," says Willard M. Kniep, the president of the American Forum for Global Education, a New York City-based group that publishes global-studies materials, offers teacher training, and encourages international-education collaboration. "But this school sounds pretty unusual."

Many large school systems have decided to offer some sort of specialized international curriculum as part of their menu of magnet-school choices. But Kniep says San Antonio's International School of the Americas is the first school he has heard of with a Latin American focus motivated, at least in part, by NAFTA.

The international school got its start when John H. Moore, the chairman of the education department at Trinity University, enticed two local Fortune 500 companies to become the school's partners. They joined as part of the university's "smart schools" project, which encourages schools to rethink their missions and reshape themselves accordingly--often by creating small schools within a school. Moore didn't ask the companies for money, just for their time, technology, and human-resources expertise.

The downtown high-rise offices of the partner companies--Valero Energy Corp. and Southwestern Bell Telephone Co.--dominate the city's skyline. Both have already staked out new business in Latin America. So their vision to create a school that would push students to look in the same direction seemed to make perfect sense.

"We are positioned geographically better to look to trade with the south," says Luis de la Garza, a vice president at Valero. The border town of Laredo, Texas, sits just 150 miles from San Antonio. "So we thought, why not focus the school's connections there? Everyone talks about relevancy. This school is relevant."

When Moore approached Lee High Principal Bill Fish, the nafta-inspired theme sounded like a natural to him, too. Describing a college friend who spends the workweek in Mexico and commutes to San Antonio on weekends, Fish says: "He's living what these kids are going to be doing in the future."

The business partners have linked the school with the Mexican consulate and the Mexican university system to eventually enable teachers and students to take conversational Spanish and Mexican culture courses through interactive video. They also plan to create internships, both locally and abroad, for students as they enter their junior and senior years. And they are prepared to help students write grant proposals for their projects and polish their interviewing skills.

Shattering Stereotypes

But when any two cultures collide, tensions are sure to arise. The same could be said for when nafta High took up residence on Lee High's campus. Some school board members initially raised concerns about the school skimming off Lee's best students. Fish says some Lee teachers are jealous of the opportunities their colleagues get across the way. And Lee students sometimes teasingly refer to the international school as "ihop" (for the International House of Pancakes).

For some students, this school is the first place they have been forced to work with people of other races and family backgrounds. Racial and ethnic divides still surface now and then, students and teachers say, but they are discussed in the open. The school's small size also helps. It's nearly impossible not to know everyone else, so stereotypes are eventually replaced by the personal connections students make.

"Last year, everybody was scared of me," says 16-year-old David Vallarta. "I used to hang out with a pretty rough crowd at my old school. Usually, once you're marked, you never get a second chance. But I've seen that people just don't give up on you here."

"At my old school, everyone was white and rich," adds 15-year-old Amber Huntington. "Here, we're all pretty different. But for the most part, we're in our own happy little world," she pauses. "But I know enough to know the real world isn't always like that."

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