Campaign to renovate boarding schools brings new life to poor villages

By Chen Qingqing Source:Global Times Published: 2019/1/28 18:13:40

○ Jack Ma Yun backs drive to overhaul rural boarding schools to tackle problem of left-behind children

○ Gap between rural and urban education still exists in terms of schools' accessibility 

○ More funding still needed to hire proper staff and raise quality of rural education 

Students have lunch as they squat next to a crude dormitory at a rural boarding school in a remote area of Kunming, Southwest China's Yunnan Province. Photo: VCG

Almost a month ago, Ye Luyao, a fifth grader at Zitong Primary School in East China's Zhejiang Province, moved into a newly renovated dormitory that was jointly funded by the Jack Ma Yun Foundation and local authorities. 

Her parents are working in Hangzhou, about 200 kilometers east of Zitong, a town surrounded by mountains. The 10-year-old girl is one of more than 6 million left-behind children living in rural China.  

"I like living at school with my classmates. It's much more fun," she told the Global Times. 

Ye and seven of her classmates share a room that has been furnished with beige bunk beds and desks. After renovation, students have access to clean toilets and hot water, and are allowed 30 minutes of reading time before going to bed. 

It is all part of a campaign to encourage boarding schools in rural areas, which was initiated by Jack Ma Yun, widely known as China's wealthiest man. The renovation work at Zitong Primary School included eight dormitories, a dining hall and a play center. More than half of the students there live at the school. 

After years of efforts, China has lifted millions of people out of poverty annually since 2012. However, a widely circulated photo of 'Snowflake Boy' in 2018 not only went viral, but also reignited the debate over the impact of poverty on children and the gap that exists between urban and rural education. 

Ma was touched by the photo of this boy, which first appeared on social media in January 2018. The boy, Wang Fuman, had walked 4.5 kilometers in temperatures of -9 C to take an exam at his school in Zhaotong, Southwest China's Yunnan Province. After arriving at school, the freezing weather had left his hair and eyebrows completely covered in frost. 

"About 15 or 16 years ago, I had a business trip to Lin'an and I came across a little girl walking on a country road at 5 in the morning… She had to walk two hours to get to her school," Ma said in a document sent to the Global Times. This experience urged him to focus more on rural education reforms through investing in rural boarding schools. 

Rural schools should be built in places where transport is convenient, making it accessible to as many children as possible, Ma suggested. 

In the early 2000s, China launched a nationwide campaign to pool resources in rural areas through school merger programs. As a result, the number of rural schools declined sharply and rural boarding schools became the only option. 

The campaign, which many people consider unsuccessful, resulted in problems such as lack of safety, supervision, and basic care for children. For the children whose families could not afford to let them live at schools, getting to school would take much longer as there were fewer choices in their villages. Boarding schools were usually ill-equipped, and inadequate hygiene standards could also impact children's health. 

It is very different today, according to Ma. With China seeing rapid economic growth and fast urbanization, villages are becoming more connected, which has made boarding schools more feasible.

Brighter future

One of Ye's favorite after-school activities is reading, and now she can borrow books from the school's library, she said. 

"We have a supervisor at the dormitory, to make us follow bedtime discipline," she added. Many of her classmates are also left-behind children, they used to play games all night at home without their parents by their sides.  

After the renovation, there is a new small library with a window that lets in the sunshine where Ye can occasionally enjoy some cozy reading time. 

The new boarding school also has an internet bar where students can have video chats with their parents, who usually work far from the town and come back home only during weeklong holidays. 

Zitong Primary School headmaster Fang Xing has been working in education for more than two decades. He said he has seen significant improvement in living conditions at the school. "Before, we used bucket toilets, and made temporary beds for everyone."  

In addition to infrastructure upgrades, the boarding school programs include drawing up training and incentive plans for teachers, diversifying after-school activities, and improving nutrition and safety. 

"The other thing I like about living at school is that every Friday they make rice cake," Ye said. 

In mid-2019, the foundation is scheduled to see more renovated boarding schools like Zitong Primary School open, including two in southwestern regions that are also major battlegrounds in poverty alleviation. 

Financing 'a problem'

Ma has called on Chinese entrepreneurs to support the plan to open and renovate more boarding schools, which may become a standard to follow in rural education reform. Many other Chinese companies are also involved in the program. 

One Shenzhen-based real estate company signed a contract with local authorities in Zhenxiong county, located in a mountainous area of Southwest China's Yunnan Province, to invest 2.7 million yuan ($0.4 million) in renovating a local school that is home to 189 boarding students, local news site reported in December. 

Guo Min, who has been working in charity and rural education for years in Yunnan, just came back from a town on the border between China and Myanmar. "We're currently working on a school renovation project there by helping raise funds, as students are now living temporarily in a large tent," he told the Global Times.  

While the local government is now focusing on helping rural education, the lack of funds is a major obstacle to lifting living standards in villages, Guo added.

The central government also launched new guidelines in May 2018 calling on local governments to invest more in rural schools.

Ma's boarding school program is a good sign of more social capital being put into helping rural education, said Tan Xuewen, an expert at the Rural Development Institute of Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. 

"However, it still depends on the specific situations in eastern and western regions in expanding the scope of new types of boarding schools nationwide," he told the Global Times. 

Tough road ahead 

Living at school means students have to take care of themselves, but Ye said not all her classmates know how to live independently. "One of our classmates wets the bed, and the others always laugh at her… I think she has a miserable time at school," she said. 

More than 36 percent of left-behind children at boarding schools said they were bullied two to three times a month at school, according to a report released in 2016.

While more boarding schools will be built in rural areas in the near future, the lack of high-quality teachers at rural boarding schools and the demand for special staff such as dorm teachers, school doctors and psychologists are major challenges in making rural boarding schools a better place. 

"As we don't have professional teachers in different subjects, it's impossible to have proper music or painting classes here," said Fang, the head of Zitong Primary School. 

In addition to improved infrastructure, "efforts should be made to attract talents to poverty stricken areas, which is more urgent," he said.  

Newspaper headline: New hope for rural education

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