The day the first-graders in Staci Strowbridge's class at Sky Oaks Elementary wrote to their new pen pals earlier this month, there was much laborious pencil-work. The students asked lots of questions about how to spell words like "ice cream." They learned how to fold paper in thirds, then stuffed their envelopes.

"Licking the envelope to close it, it sure tastes icky!" said first-grader Madison Saint Jean, who sealed hers and hustled over with the other kids to a giant mailbox Strowbridge had brought to class.

The mailbox was just for show, because the letters were hand-delivered. The kids at Sky Oaks, which is in Burnsville, are not writing to pen pals in Iraq or France or even Iowa: They are corresponding with first-grade students at Eastview Elementary in Lakeville, 5 miles away.

The cultural differences are greater than the distance would suggest. Minority students make up 38 percent of the classrooms in the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District, compared with 12 percent in Lakeville. That makes the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district "racially isolated" under state law, which has required the two districts to come up with plans to better integrate their students.

Strowbridge's pen-pal project is one small part of those plans. Clusters of teachers in both districts have applied for mini-grants -- the pen pals got just over $1,000 -- to bridge the gap through field trips, cultural dances and even letters.

When Strowbridge taught her students about pen pals earlier this month, she built the excitement slowly. First, she read them a story about Arthur the monkey and his secret pen pal. Then she asked them whether they would like to have pen pals, too -- and, yes, they would! Finally, she whipped out a letter from behind her chair from a teacher named Mrs. Lange at Eastview whose students wanted to correspond.

It was too much for Billy Hall, a student who sensed that something else was going on.

"You tricked us, because you know Mrs. Lange!" he said.

Not so, Strowbridge assured him. "I've talked to her on the telephone and on the computer, but I have never met her, either."

The first-grade teachers at Sky Oaks and Eastview -- along with their students -- will meet in person on two field trips this year, one to each school. It's a benefit of the project that not only serves the goals of the integration grant, but one the students wouldn't get if they were writing to pen pals on the other side of the world.

"I think it sets up for building possibly a lifelong relationship with somebody else, versus the long-distance pen pals, you might never meet them or come in contact with them again," Strowbridge said.

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016