Lessons from Columbus
Educational efforts in the border community reach across to Mexico.
The more I get to know Columbus, the more I realize that Palomas and Columbus fit together hand in glove, across the imaginary line called the border.
There are cross-border businesses and marriages, but probably there's nothing that unites the two towns more than the Columbus elementary school, where about 300 students out of the total 580 reside in Palomas.
The practice of accepting Mexicans started one day in the 1950s, when 12 children from Palomas showed up at the school door after walking three miles to Columbus. The school principal, Phoebe Watson, decided she would take them in.
Watson would say later, interviewed by the Associated Press in 1998, what she always said: "Every child deserves an education."
She came from what would appear to be the hardest-hided conservative background. She was a rancher's wife, and after retiring from the schools, she was mayor of Columbus and head of the Border Belles Cowbelles, a social club for women in agriculture and ranching.
The current mayor of Columbus, Philip Skinner, says, "I heard she was a very stern, no-nonsense person. She would not permit kids to speak in Spanish. I'm sure she was driven by what she thought was best for the kids." I've heard from a former student of hers that she used to personally trim the hair of some kids whose hair was a mess.
But she always stood her ground on her policy of bringing kids up from Palomas. In a New York Times article in 1993, she said she got mad at those who say Americans' money should be used only for American kids: "Oh, when I hear that I just want to scratch their eyes out."
Nobody seems to be sure how unique Columbus is among border communities. It probably is the only place where American buses are used to pick up kids at the border and drive them to school. It is probably the only school district that so publicly acknowledges its policy.
In April this year US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made a visit to Columbus and rode a bus with the kids down to the border. "Obviously the situation in Columbus is something I've never seen before," he said. "These are our kids and they're trying to get a great education. And it's frankly inspiring."
The kids who come to Columbus are "our kids" because they were born in Deming hospitals, and therefore have dual citizenship according to the 14th Amendment. Columbus Fire Chief Ken Riley has made "thousands of trips to the border to pick up women in labor."
When I was a substitute teacher at the Columbus Elementary School over a decade ago, one of the teachers confided to me that students often lost their English proficiency over the long summer vacations.
That's why for nine years they've had a different kind of schedule there. They have a few short vacations instead of one long vacation. They've also been authorized to have 25 extra days of classes per year because of their low academic standing — they've been rated an "F school" by the state of New Mexico.
But the new principal as of last year, Armando Chavez, bursts with positivity. "It's the most remarkable school in the world," he says. He claims reading scores went up 9% last year and math scores soared 15%. He says they were number-one in the district in math.
Teachers have changed their methods. "We're looking at raw data [about students] every week," Chavez says. "We're delving into the data pool. If you set goals for students, you're going to get achievement."
They have had success with some hard cases. He tells about one fifth-grade immigrant who had never been to school. "He came not even knowing the shapes," Chavez says. "In one year he learned to read 70-80 words a minute — this was in Spanish. The average for a fifth-grader is about 100 words a minute. You want to shout from the housetops."
But some of the students may have problems at home that tend to keep them earthbound at school.
At one home, a father of five was working in the fields at Colonia Victoria after being deported from doing field work in Deming. Sometimes he earns $6 a day after paying for his ride and other times closer to $12. The family struggles to eat. The inequality at the border is like a set of teeth sometimes, gnashing people to pieces.
The mother sometimes works as a seamstress at someone's private home. She said to me, "Once I told my daughter I was going to be a prostitute, and she said 'No, ma.'" I thought maybe she was joking, but I guess not.
Armando Chavez insists, however, with his determination to help the students, "You can't make excuses for the children."
The family's two daughters going to the Columbus school, Crystal and Ruth, actually appear to be pretty much on top of things. They both speak English fluently because they lived with their grandmother in Deming for four years.
There are other attempts in Columbus to improve education. Two residents — long-time leftie Jack Long and Mayor Skinner, who's a Republican — have joined forces for the past four years to try to start a charter school.
"The school that is there, it's almost a foreign-born element in the community," says Long. "The administration and the majority of teachers don't live in the community. The cultures of Deming and Columbus are totally different cultures."
Skinner says, "Every year we're hopeful, and this year we're more hopeful. In the past it was just Jack and I. Now we have educators that we've brought in who have been involved in the charter movement. We've broadened the team."
Another group of people is at work to get Western New Mexico University classes going in Columbus. They're setting up in the old historical schoolhouse, which is in the process of being remodeled. There are already some computer classes in English as a Second Language going on.
James Ortiz, of the College of Community and Workforce Development at WNMU, explains that "a lot of people may not be able to pay for three-credit classes," so they are opening the possibility of taking one-credit classes. Classes in welding, computers and "very basic nursing" are planned.
One of the most interesting things about this project is that people from Mexico will be able to take the courses whatever their immigration status.
"We're going to go for it, to see what happens. We're going to rock and roll," says Ortiz.
I think it's fair to ask if there's a community on the border as dedicated to helping its mirror community in Mexico as Columbus is.
Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.