Shehuizhong Primary School is located in a traditional residential courtyard in a Beijing suburb. The doors of the school are always open. Dripping clothes are hung by other courtyard residents on the lines that run between the school's basketball net and the walls. The small compound looks more like a spider web than a schoolyard.
When the bell rings to signal the end of class, the children scamper into the yard. They are smiling and laughing, but the Zhang Baogui heaves a sigh.
Zhang founded Beijing's first school for children of migrant workers. Now, he says, the school must move yet again. "This is our 11th move since our school was set up 11 years ago," he says. Neither school nor students, it seems, have a fixed abode.
Zhang Baogui had worked as a direct-hire teacher in a village near Xinyang City in Henan Province for more than 15 years. Such teachers, usually working in remote rural areas, are paid directly by their students' families.
While he was teaching in Henan, he learned that most of his students' parents were migrant workers in far-away cities. The children were living with their grandparents. The kids were always thrilled at Spring Festival, when they could go to the cities to visit their parents. At the end of the holiday, however, they had to return to the village because there was no place for them to attend school in the cities.
Zhang felt sorry for the children as well as their parents.
In June of 1993, Zhang went to Beijing to conduct some research on education needs of migrant workers' kids. He made many friends among the workers he talked with on the trip, and all of them begged him to set up a school. They hated being separated from their children for such long periods.
"The children could go on with their education without me in our village. But many migrant kids would lose their chance for schooling without me in Beijing. So I decided to quit my job and set up a school here," recalls Zhang. "It was more important for me to open a migrants' school in Beijing than to transfer to the government-run public schools," he adds.
On September 1, 1993, the first day of classes for Beijing students, Shehuizhong Primary School held its opening ceremony. About 18 pupils entered Zhang's shanty, set up in a refuse dump.
A year later, Li Sumei and her husband, Yi Benyao, opened the Xingzhi Migrant Children's Primary School in a local vegetable field. Husband and wife had both previously worked as direct-hire primary school teachers.
So schools for migrant workers' kids have existed -- however haphazardly -- in the capital city for a decade, thanks to the efforts of people like Zhang Baogui and Li Sumei. But many, many migrant children still don't have a place to go to receive an education.
Zhang Ge, an administrator in a direct-hire university, had never thought about establishing a primary school. But Zhang is also a migrant worker in the capital. When his wife and child came to Beijing in 1995, Zhang visited at least six public primary schools around the Summer Palace. All of them charged extra fees for non-residents, ranging from 10,000 yuan (US$1,208) to 100,000 yuan (US$12,081). One headmaster, trying to give Zhang a break, said, "If you could donate two televisions to the school, the total charge will be no more than 8,000 yuan (US$966)."
"I don't know how to describe what I felt at that time. When I went back home, I saw many children, eight or nine years old, playing in a produce market. They should be going to school, not playing in the market. Why it is so hard for our migrant children to go to school in the cities?" Zhang asks.
Zhang went to the Haidian District Education Commission and told them that he wanted to establish a school for migrant children. A sympathetic commissioner told him that it would be very difficult for him to do such a thing, as it was technically illegal. The best they could do for him was to promise to look the other way.
In early 1997, Zhang Ge opened his school, initially naming it simply the Migrant Children's Primary School. Two weeks later, he changed the name to Mingyuan Primary School. This was partially because it was located at Yuan Mingyuan, the Old Summer Palace, but also because Zhang wanted the children to live and study in brightness, as the new name implied.
In 1998, the ministries of education and public security issued temporary regulations on compulsory education for migrant children. For the first time, local public schools would be responsible for educating migrant children. Moreover, individuals would now legally be allowed to open schools for these kids.
Since the new regulations were issued, schools for migrant kids have mushroomed. The people who run them come from every walk of life and level of education, from university graduates to illiterates. Most were direct-hire teachers before coming to the city to open a school. The others were peddlers, cooks, construction workers -- migrant workers themselves who wanted their children to have an education. According to Zhang Shouli, who has conducted extensive research on this phenomenon, many people are rushing into this field because they see potential for profit in a huge market.
However, Shi Bonian, a professor from the China Youth University for Political Science who is studying the issue of migrant children, feels that this is not a bad thing. "We shouldn't be too concerned about the motives of the schools' operators. It is inconceivable that the public schools will be able to accept all the migrant children. These small operators are helping thousands of children to attend school."
(China.org.cn by Wu Nanlan, March 13, 2004)