Educating China's Migrant Children

Drive far enough outside of Beijing and the signs of breakneck growth appear fewer and farther between. Instead of soaring skyscrapers and construction on every other block, there are one-story buildings. Outside, street vendors huddle on sidewalks and in wind-swept alleys. The odd electric bike, laden high with random goods haphazardly perched precariously high, quietly passes by. Public buses are intermittent.

This is the Daxing District, a southern outpost of Beijing and home to the Dandelion School, a unique haven for the children of migrant workers. It is also where the myth that the Chinese government has solved its population problem meets reality.

China has historically wrestled between promoting growth and curbing it. In 1958, during the Great Leap Forward, Communist Youth League Secretary Hu Yaobang said, “A larger population means greater manpower.” By 1979, in the wake of the 1962 famine and the fragile recovery that followed, officials introduced the one-child policy to limit growth. It essentially remains intact today, and probably saved the country from a crippling population explosion, but that policy never accommodated for another major factor: China’s migrant population.

According to the latest national census taken in 2010, Beijing alone has a population of 19.6 million residents. Of those, at least one in three is a migrant worker. China’s state-run news agency reported that “top talent” has flocked to Beijing as well as those in “the service industry.” But working in the “service industry” can range from having a decent-paying job in a hotel to barely scraping by as a street vendor. Or working one of the construction crews that keep building sites abuzz in Beijing 24/7.

The country’s roaring growth has demanded a seemingly endless supply of workers, but no one seems to be able to answer the question … at what cost? 

The answer may be the future generation. Consider statistics released by the Dandelion School: there are 1.3 billion migrant workers across all of China. More than 200,000 of them are children of school age. There are no numbers on how many of those migrant workers have their children with them.

Regardless, Chinese law guarantees nine years of education at minimum for each child. But due to strict laws concerning “household registration” (or hukou) that provide access to education and health care for children according to where they are born, the vast majority of these children have nowhere to turn. They are grossly underserved or all but ignored by their government.

A common scenario emerges. Parents come to the city for higher-paying jobs but are unable to find a school for their child. The child is then sent back home, often hours away by train, and left to be raised by grandparents or other family members. It is very common in China for migrant parents to see their children once a year during the Chinese New Year holiday. The negative impact on the child’s psyche, not to mention the family dynamic, has been well reported, particularly by Melinda Liu of the Daily Beast.

Officials in Beijing have openly worried that the population of children of migrant workers is unsustainably large. But they have failed again and again to properly address the problem. In September 2011, authorities abruptly decided to shut down 23 schools for migrants’ children across Beijing.

The Dandelion School remains open, in large part due to the indomitable force that is Principal Zheng Hong. On a cold and windy day in early December, she greets our small group just inside the school’s brightly colored blue gates.

Seven years ago, Hong opened the school with the help of a small but determined group of professional women in Beijing. Today 600 middle school students, from the poorest of migrant worker families, attend class and board full time through the academic year. The school is a nonprofit organization that relies on private donations and operates on a budget of 6 million renminbi (or about $158,000).

Principal Hong spent many years both in the US and in China as an academic in the field of paleontology. Frustrated with a lack of meaningful reward, she made the transition into nonprofit work by obtaining her MPA from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She returned to Beijing on the mission she has been on ever since.

She seems to know every nook and cranny on campus, a renovated light factory that is in a constant state of repair. She seems to also know nearly every child by name. She beams when she opens the doors to the sunlit library. She becomes quiet when she pulls back the curtains to a boy’s dormitory room. The ceiling is giving way and the bunks had to be soldered at the bottom to fit in the room. “This room is next on my list,” she says. One has the sense that for Hong every triumph is a point of pride and every next challenge is an enduring anxiety.

Recently, representatives from the municipal government came to the school. It was a potentially nerve-wracking visit. Two years ago the government started to contribute 130 renminbi (about $20) to every student’s tuition. Losing that would be a blow. Hong says there is no set structure for fundraising. She has no idea what her budget will be year to year. Support can come in unconventional ways; one American family donated enough for each student to have a chicken leg at dinner once a week for a year. Another woman did the same with oranges. After the officials’ visit, Hong says, they told her they were “deeply touched” by what they saw.

There is good reason. The school follows a compulsory Chinese curriculum. Upon entry, nearly all students are at least 18 months behind their age level. In three years, they catch up. By the time they leave the Dandelion School, nearly one hundred percent of students test at—or higher than—their age level and are eligible to move onto high school.

The students’ positive energy is palpable. In English class the students clamored around our group with a giggle-filled bravado. They did not so much as inquire as shout with glee, “How are you!! What is your name!!”

The Chinese government would do well to take a cue from Principal Hong. Investing in the children of those who have helped build this country into the world’s second largest economy seems to make sense, doesn’t it?

Just inside one of the main buildings is a mural created by the students. They were asked to create a map of their journey from their hometown to the Dandelion School. Next to it is the following:

The struggle and pain revealed by some of the Dandelion students is a microcosm of problems reflecting a larger reality of 18 to 20 million migrants from all over China. Their voices of discontent, though muted now, will become a formidable force for social unrest if not attended to. If China wants to become a “harmonious society” then it must heed to the voices of the people living at the bottom of society.

Those are the voices that fill the hallways at the Dandelion School. Voices that sing with confidence instilled by Principal Hong and the mission she has embraced.


Photo Credit: Carla Antonini

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