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Rural Boy-turned-scholar Returns to Help His Alma Mater Improve

Ren Zhifeng doesn't want this story to be about him.


He wants it to be about the problems and promises of China's rural education. More specifically, he wants it to be about Daqiao Middle School, in the township of Daqiao, Nanbu County, where more than 2,000 kids from the poor eastern region of Sichuan Province attend grades six through 12.


He wants to call attention to the need for more student dorms and new faculty housing and better sports facilities and ways to keep the best teachers and students from defecting to the school in the county seat.


He's eager to extol the merits of balancing heavy-duty academics with music and art and fun ways of learning foreign languages.


He'd like to show how a school far from centers of power and influence can go places when it has enlightened leadership, creative teachers, friends around the world and alumni willing to give back.


This story is about all those things, but inescapably, it's about Ren as well. For his is the quintessential tale of a country lad finding success and fulfillment via education, and his initial gateway to the wider world was Daqiao Middle School.


Ren's father, who died early this year at age 90, was an illiterate farmer with an aptitude for doing maths in his head. Ren grew up in a house with a dirt floor, no plumbing and only intermittent electricity, often eating just two meals a day. His two brothers and one sister still farm in their home village.


Although conditions have improved vastly in rural Sichuan, farming still rests on backbreaking manual labor, while rising incomes depend on migrant labor.


About a third of Nanbu County's population of 1.25 million today has departed to work in cities all over China, leaving the elderly to till the fields and care for the grandchildren.


Against the odds, Ren is neither a farmer nor a migrant laborer. Instead, he's a physics professor in the United States and a leading international researcher in the field of nano technology, with 25 patents and hundreds of scholarly publications to his name.


As for alumni giving back, Ren is as loyal as they come. He and his wife He Ruiping, along with their two teenaged sons and a rotating cast of American friends, spend vacation time every spring teaching English at Daqiao Middle School.


This year, in conjunction with the school's 50th anniversary celebration, Ren spearheaded an alumni fund drive with a 100,000-yuan (US$12,346) pledge of his own and, with total lack of ceremony, delivered the first 30,000 yuan (US$ 3,703) in cash to the school leaders.


"Chinese don't have the custom of philanthropy," he said during his most recent visit. "We need to educate people that when you are doing very well, you need to give."


Journey out of countryside


Ren's journey from the deep countryside of Southwest China to the top tiers of international science might never have happened but for a determined teacher who came looking for him. His family had planned to send Ren to a vocational school after two years at his local middle school, thinking it the best a smart rural lad might aspire to.


But the teacher, aware of the boy's extraordinary maths abilities, plucked him out of his village and took him to Daqiao to keep him on an academic track.


There he studied two more years, graduating in 1980. Among about 300 seniors, he was one of just 15 to pass that year's college entrance exams (although some tried again, and Ren says about 50 of his classmates ultimately went to university).


From then on, each new educational step meant an even bigger geographical leap to Chengdu, the provincial capital, for university; to Wuhan for a master's degree; to Beijing for a doctoral program at the Chinese Academy of Sciences; and then around the globe for postdoctoral studies at the State University of New York in Buffalo.


Ren joined the faculty of Boston College in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1999, becoming a full professor in 2004, the year he also was elected a fellow of the American Physics Society. This spring, he received Boston College's outstanding senior researcher award at the ripe old age of 42.


He is not the only alumnus of Daqiao Middle School to make good, and no doubt would prefer people focus on others the county's mayor, or the Sichuan University economics professor, or the military official in Northeast China, or the fellow who works for the State Council, or the various success stories in business.


The contingent from Ren's class that attended a reunion dinner before the anniversary celebration included a hospital administrator, civil servants and teachers.


Today's students are encouraged to think big and pursue their dreams, and some things are in their favor. Central government subsidies for rural education have improved, especially since universal schooling through ninth grade was mandated in 2003, and the number of Daqiao students attending college continues to increase as higher education in China expands.


But the school's principal and academic vice-principal, both alumni who returned to the school as teachers, say finances are still their biggest headache.


Teacher hiring has not kept pace with student enrolments since 1999, while the student body has more than doubled from 1,500 to 2,300, the teaching corps has increased from 70 to just 85.


Shortage of instructional space was resolved with a new classroom building, but the lack of dormitories means some classrooms double as dorm rooms, and most teachers must find housing outside. There is a sports ground where students do morning exercises, and a cluster of ping-pong tables, but no indoor athletic facilities.


The administrators say they feel squeezed from both above and below, as they try to meet government standards and requirements for education on the one hand and satisfy families on the other. Academic pressures, parental expectations and concerns about safety all add up to a long school day most students board and are in class until 9 or 10 pm which the school leaders acknowledge can have diminishing returns.


Compounding the challenges is an odd sort of brain drain: Nantong Middle School, which as the county's "key" school has greater resources, has been luring away quality teachers as well as bright students. About 30 Daqiao teachers have left for higher salaries and better benefits in Nantong since the early 1990s.


Way forward


In Ren Zhifeng's view, the way out for Daqiao and for rural schools generally lies in alumni fundraising, intelligent investment and development of distinctive strengths, rather than in awaiting government help and trying to "compete" with each other.


He and his wife have drawn up an idealistic plan for Daqiao, eagerly embraced by the school, that incorporates aspects of US education they feel have benefited their own sons.


Their vision calls for a curriculum geared toward fostering students' individual talents, with more art, music and extra-curricular sports. If Daqiao had five music teachers instead of one, for instance, "we could have a band or orchestra," Ren said.


The plan also emphasizes spoken English competency, to bring youngsters "to the level where they can freely communicate," Ren said.


Daqiao students already have unusual opportunities in this regard: Four years ago, he and his wife began bringing volunteers to Daqiao to teach for a week or two during their spring vacation, and it's now an annual program.


The receptive school administration arranges for housing and meals, the 10 or so regular Chinese teachers of English get extra practice and training, the visitors pay their own way and have an eye-opening experience, and the students are the most delighted of all.


This spring, the couple again brought their sons to Nanbu County for spring break, along with two batches of friends. Ren and five of the US visitors stayed on at Daqiao during the first week in May for the anniversary celebration, joining students, teachers and staff who had postponed their May Day holiday for the occasion.


Several hundred alumni came back for reunion dinners and a morning assembly in the schoolyard, where they mingled with excited youngsters turned out in varying combinations of new school track suits and sun visors, blue jeans and T-shirts.


The seniors, many sporting shaggy hair and mildly bored expressions, resembled high school seniors anywhere. In fact, other than the backdrop of breathtaking green mountains and terraced fields in every direction, these vibrant sons and daughters of the countryside looked indistinguishable from urban kids.


The student talent show that evening exhibited the unmistakable influences of TV variety programs and music videos.


After expenses, the school's first alumni fund drive raised about 200,000 yuan (US$25,031), which Ren deemed a good start.


(China Daily July 3, 2006)

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