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Private Education Struggles for Survival

Zhang Lihong, a career educator, believes there is a niche for private schools to fit into the country's compulsory basic education system.


For this belief, she has worked and struggled for 13 years. Her experience, mixed with little enjoyment and lots of bitterness, mirrors the rise and fall that urban private schools have gone through since the early 1990s.


Zhang, headmistress of the Beijing Shengyuanmeiyu Experimental School, couldn't forget the day after Beijing Evening News, a popular local newspaper, reported her school's opening in March 1993.


"The three telephone hotlines kept ringing all day," Zhang recalled.


Zhang's school, which opened on September 1 that year in Shunyi District, Beijing, offered six years of primary schooling.


Despite the fact the school charged 14,500 yuan (US$1,788) in tuition fees per school year plus a lump sum financial support of 30,000 yuan (US$3,699), Zhang's school attracted about 300 applicants, most from rich families in Beijing.


The school enrolled only 150 students from grade one to grade four that year, aged from 6 to 9.


"At that time, parents regarded studying at private schools as a symbol of their high social status," said Zhang.


In those days, private schools had better teaching facilities and employed higher quality teachers than regular schools. They offered what parents believed was a more up-to-date curricula.


For instance, even first-graders, or 6-year-olds, started to learn computers and English.


However, only a few of the first batch of private schools are still running today, Zhang estimates.


The most common greeting whenever private school founders meet is: "Is your school still alive?"


Zhang said the private schools began to lose ground in 1997 when the municipalities, such as the Beijing municipal government, started to pour enormous investment into enhancing public school education.


In Beijing, public primary and high schools enjoyed tremendous growth due to their rich resources, Zhang said.


"Little room has been left to private schools in basic education," Zhang said.


Finding the right niche


To survive and develop, Zhang said, private schools should find their own niche and offer a more attractive education model than that of the average public schools.


For instance, it is hard for public schools to satisfy the special needs of a certain types of students, like well-to-do students, or disabled or mentally-challenged children, she said.


And because many good public schools are very crowded, it is difficult for them to give special attention to individual students. "It means private schools must focus on every aspect of each student in his/her growth."


"It's easier said than done, however," Zhang admitted.



Zhang Lihong poses with students of Beijing Shengyuanmeiyu Experimental School.


That's why she said her own philosophy about education only applies to primary students at present.


Besides following regular lessons stipulated in the Ministry of Education guidelines, she has designed additional but innovative curricula to tap the mental and artistic potential of the children.


Abacus and mental arithmetic courses are introduced. Classes in which children learn to play musical instruments and do exercises to music accompaniment have been opened.


In this boarding school, children play chess or go games before they go to bed.


They listen to classical Western and Chinese music while brushing teeth.


"These are minute details ignored in average public schools," said Zhang.


"The students come to know hundreds of pieces by heart before they graduate," said Zhang.


Zhang's confidence in her own curricula has been strengthened after her students demonstrate their talents in various kinds of activities along with students from other schools.


However, the success of her school is an exception rather than the norm.


Though the law of promoting private education was issued by the government in 2004, private schools have been marginalized ever since their rebirth in the early 1990s, compared with State-founded schools whose development has been the focus of the governments at different levels.


With rich resources, public schools now can provide the same teaching facilities and hire teachers of high quality.


Difficult times


Zhang couldn't help shedding tears when talking about the quick-paced bankruptcy of the first batch of private schools in China after only a few years of existence.


She actually has just brought her school back from the brink of bankruptcy.


In 2002, her partner wanted to withdraw from the school they co-founded when the number of students shrank to miserable 50.


Obviously, it was hard to make decent profits out of running a private school at that moment.


Sell the campus and turn to other more profitable business is the tactic many private school runners employed over the past 15 years.


As a co-founder, Zhang was forced to make the choice between selling the campus, which her partner wanted to do, or take full charge of it.


She claimed that she would receive 4 million yuan (US$496,800) if she agreed to sell the campus right away.


In terms of money, this was a satisfactory return from 50,000 yuan (US$6,165) start-up fund.


However, Zhang declined the offer. Instead, she took over the dying school and thus incurred 30 million yuan (US$3.8 million) in debt.


Creditors came knocking on her door.


"They tried to force me into selling the campus to pay back their debts, but I refused," said Zhang.


Zhang said she didn't want to let the first Beijing private boarding school come "to a miserable end at my own hands."


"If I hadn't t tried my best, I would have regretted it," said Zhang.


Her love for the piece of land also held her back. It was a piece of wheat field and she chose it to be the campus.


So many people teachers, parents and students have contributed to this campus, said Zhang.


"If I stop halfway and sell it for money, it's close to a sin," Zhang said.


Above all, she wants her own school to try and fully-develop her ideas on education.


Thanks to her optimism and hard work, Zhang's school is still running.


"You must continue to try until there is nothing more you can do," she said.


(China Daily March 6, 2006)

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