A school that hopes to see fewer students

0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Beijing Review, June 9, 2021

With her short hair dyed bright purple, 15-year-old Du Fangmei is easy to spot in her class. She practiced giving a haircut to a mannequin head as she talked to Beijing Review in her classroom. "My hair was dyed by the hairdressing teacher last month," she said in standard Chinese. "I like it a lot."

Du Fangmei practices giving a haircut to a mannequin head in the barber class in Fugong County,  Yunnan Province, on May 21(YUAN YUAN)

With her in the classroom are some of her classmates, all teenagers, and hairdressing teacher Duan Zhiwen, whom the students prefer to call shifu (master) rather than teacher to show their respect. The students all have stylish hairstyles, either created by their shifu or by each other. A boy with a buzz cut said he cut his hair by himself with the help of a mirror.

The clothing and jewelry worn by some of the students reflect their pride in their ethnic minority heritage. Fugong, where the school is located, is a county in Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province. Most of the residents there hail from either the Lisu or Nu ethnic groups.

The special school

The school was established with the special permission of the autonomous prefecture's government in order to address geographical inequalities in access to education. All the students at the school, mostly aged between 13 and 16, either had dropped out of primary school at a very early age or hadn't gone to school at all before entering this school. For these students, this school provides the only chance to get an education before adulthood.

"The reason they didn't go to school or dropped out early varies from family to family, but poverty was the major reason for their lack of access to education," said Zi Yuefang, headmaster of the school.

The headmaster added that the parents of these children attach relatively little importance to education and would rather keep their children at home to help with housework and farmwork. There is also another special reason for some children's previous lack of education, owing to the unique location of Fugong. The county is located on China's border with Myanmar, and some children in the county previously lived in Myanmar with their parents, missing out on China's compulsory education.

Ensuring that every child of school-going age receives compulsory education is one of the major tasks in China's campaign against poverty. As one of the six regions in the country affected most severely by poverty, Nujiang has made greater efforts to achieve this goal.

As part of these efforts, the local government established several teams of local officials who walked all the way to remote villages, visited every family to identify kids in need of education, and persuaded them to attend school. But as hundreds of these children were in their teens and couldn't catch up after years of missed classes, it became almost impossible for them to join regular schools. A vocational school tailored to the needs of these children was seen as the best solution.

To create a campus for these students, the local Party school squeezed its staff into a few offices and turned over the majority of its facilities. Tuition and accommodation in the school are free. The academic courses, including standard Chinese and mathematics, are on the morning agenda and students can choose to join any of the vocational classes, including cooking, hairdressing, motorcycle maintenance and electronics in the afternoon.

While preparations were underway to open the school, a relocation project launched by the local government helped many poor families to move there from remote villages in order to live closer to campus. The teachers at the school are "borrowed" from other middle schools in the county. In September 2019, the school welcomed its first cohort of 306 students.

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