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The Willamette River and the Laja River basin in Mexico are climates that don’t necessarily have a lot in common.

The Laja River area is hotter, drier and more tropical than the Willamette Valley, said Dionné Mej̨ía, with the Corvallis-based Institute for Applied Ecology.

However, Mej̨ía said the watersheds do have something important in common: birds. The black-throated gray warbler and the rufous hummingbird migrate between the two watersheds, and the great blue heron has a range large enough that they can be found in both watersheds.

These shared bird species have been the foundation for the Classrooms Across Borders project the institute has put on the last three years with its partner organizations, the Marys River Watershed Council and the Greenbelt Land Trust. The project has worked to build connections between schools in these “sister watersheds” by getting kids in both watersheds to do hands-on science learning field trips into natural areas, such as field trips this week at Greenbelt’s Bald Hill Farm.

The local schools involved, Garfield and Lincoln elementary schools in Corvallis and South Shore Elementary in Albany, all have dual-language immersion programs. Students at the local schools also exchange video messages, photos and art projects with a partner school, Primaria Miguel Hidalgo, Santa Rosa de Lima, in Guanajuato, Mexico.

Mej̨ía, an ecological education program coordinator, said the next step in the program is a visit to the partner school that she'll take with four local teachers, two from Lincoln and one each from Garfield and South Shore, just after school gets out next month.

Mej̨ía said the teachers will get a chance to meet their partner teachers in Mexico and do lessons with students at their school. She said the goal of the trip is to deepen the connection between the schools to promote more cultural exchanges between them.

“We want (the teachers) to get more invested in the school, to see the school and meet the teachers,” she said.

She added that the cultural exchange gives students an opportunity to develop their Spanish skills, but it also builds an appreciation for other cultures.

Isabel García Cánovas, a third-grade teacher at Lincoln who will be part of the trip to Mexico this summer, said the exchange has been valuable because it shows students that learning Spanish really is important. For students from Spanish-speaking families who are used to being in the minority, they get to see schools where students who look like them are in the majority, Garcia Cánovas said. Students not from Spanish-speaking families also get a chance to develop cultural understanding, she said.

“It’s difficult to even put into words how much it has improved our classrooms because it touches so many different areas,” she said.

García Cánovas said the school community has embraced the exchange program so much that the school’s parent group funded the cost of one teacher going on the exchange and the school administration found the funds to send another.

Stacy Moore, ecological education program director with the institute, said the program gets funding from the Gray Family Foundation, the Meyer Memorial Trust Environmental Leadership for Youth Program, and Willamette Habitat Restoration. In its first three years, the program got $24,000 per year from the Gray Family Foundation, which is also providing another $19,000 in funding for the program next year.

“The (exchange) program has grown by leaps and bounds over the years to the point where we are sending teachers down,” Moore said.

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Anthony Rimel covers weekend events, education, courts and crime and can be reached at anthony.rimel@lee.net, 541-758-9526, or via Twitter @anthonyrimel.

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