Celia Garduno opened the handwritten letter from her new pen pal and beamed.
"I like it because my friend Sarah Barnes is really nice," said Celia, 7, a third-grader at Cox Elementary School in Dade City. "It's really cool she wrote me a letter."
The next day, a note from Celia arrived at Pine View Elementary for Sarah, who ripped it open, read it and then quickly dashed off a response.
"It was good," fourth-grader Sarah, 9, said. "You get to talk to somebody who is farther away from you."
Cox and Pine View elementary schools stand just 23 miles apart. They share the same curriculum and are in the same school district. Yet to the students, they're practically a world apart: The kids come from different backgrounds and are unfamiliar with each other's communities.
Through the efforts of their teachers, Lourdes Plunkett and Veronica Saavedra, the children are coming closer together through letters, phone calls and video conferencing. They discuss themselves, their schools and life around them.
And they love it.
"We can learn about different people and what they like, and they can learn about us," said Victoria Scerbo, 9, a fourth-grader at Pine View. "I want to meet them. It will be fun to actually know them and be their friend."
The initiative is more than "just to say, 'Hi. What's up? How are you?' " observed Plunkett, who teaches at Cox.
Rather, the goal is to share thoughts and ideas. This week, the kids discussed questions they would ask the next president of the United States.
At Cox, the children said they would ask the president about how to lower gas prices and whether he could make tougher laws for parents who owe child support. That second question baffled some of the Pine View kids who weren't sure what child support is.
Over at Pine View, the students wanted to ask how the president would end the war in Iraq, where one boy's father is serving, and how he might repair New Orleans, where two of them endured Hurricane Katrina.
Pine View fourth-grader Samantha Epifanio, 9, said she watched Wednesday night's presidential debate to see whether the two classes' concerns made a blip. Her verdict: "Not really."
"I really hope they will change stuff like that, so homeless people can have homes and so they can lower prices," Samantha said.
Saavedra, who teaches at Pine View, said she has enjoyed bridging the gap between Cox and Pine View. At least three other classes at each school plan to extend the pen pal project during the remainder of the school year.
The exchange will help the children "to become critical thinkers, and to think outside of the box," Saavedra said. "They have to look at other people's perspectives and really understand where other people are coming from."
The fourth-graders also need all the writing practice they can get before the FCAT writing exam, she added.
"Anything to get fourth-graders writing for fun is good," she said, "because they act like it's torture sometimes."
Between the calls and letters, the kids haven't acted as if the project is torture at all. Some were bashful, others boastful, while speaking to one another and seeing each others' faces during a video conference call. They have enjoyed reading letters about who likes cats, or sports, or the color green, and they have looked forward to sharing about themselves, too.
As Celia simply put it, "This is so cool."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.