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"Mini-schools" build foundation for China's rural students

by Xinhua writer Zhang Hui

NANCHANG, June 1 (Xinhua) -- While urban students attend fancy parties in big school halls to celebrate Children's Day, observed on June 1 in China, their peers in rural schools may not even have a playground to run around on.

Fengxin rural school, located in Baishui village in east China's Jiangxi Province, features only a classroom, an activity room, a teacher's office and a small grassy playground.

The school has 33 students, including 24 pre-school children and nine first grade students. Fifty-one-year-old Wu Xiaoping is the only teacher in the school.

The students all sit in one classroom, with pre-schoolers on the left side and others on the right. When Wu gives lessons to one side, students on the other side do their homework.

Schools like Fengxin are common in China's vast rural areas. They are tiny, usually with one teacher and a dozen or so students, and sometimes just one teacher and one student. They are incomplete, having only one or two grades, and the facilities are poor.

But these mini-schools have proven to be very important in rural areas.

In the early 2000s, China's educational authorities advocated the merger of schools like Fengxin in rural areas to concentrate educational resources and improve study conditions.

But the mergers made students' journeys to school longer and more expensive, resulting in an obvious drop in the number of students.

Statistics show the number of rural primary schools decreased by 52 percent from 2000 to 2010 and the number of students in the countryside dropped by 27.8 percent.

The dropout rate of rural pupils rose to 8.8 out of 1000 in 2011, almost the same level as in 1997.

The policy was called off in 2012 and mini-schools like Fengxin have recovered in many places so that young children can enroll in schools near their homes.

In these mini-schools, rural children get their first taste of knowledge, and teachers are devoted despite poor conditions.

Students at Fengxin school study Chinese, mathematics, painting, singing and other activities, all taught by Wu. Though she admits she gets tired, there is always a tender smile on her face.

"I like kids because they are very cute and lovely," she said, explaining her decision to become a village school teacher 35 years ago.

Wu believes the most important teaching technique is "patience and care."

"If you treat students like their mother do, they can feel it and they are willing to listen to you," she said.

Mini-schools are usually limited to students younger than the third grade. When they get older and can take better care of themselves, they move to more standard schools in village or county centers.

When she talked about students leaving every year, the talkative Wu became silent and her eyes red, but she said she is happy her students could go to better schools.

"I heard that students I once taught have been admitted by good universities almost every year in recent years. I am very proud of them," she said.

At Hougong village school, also in Jiangxi and about 370 kilometers from Fengxin school, there is only one teacher and one student.

The teacher, Zheng Zhengyin, has taught there since 1978, and over the years, his students have either moved to cities with their migrant worker parents or were sent to better schools in town.

Gong Weizhen became the only student last September. Her parents are working in a faraway city and the grandmother she lives with is troubled by sickness and old age and cannot send her to another school.

"I have to teach even if there is only one student," Zheng said. He has suffered cerebral thrombosis for years, but on many occasions he has gone to the hospital to receive treatment in the morning and come back to the school to teach in the afternoon.

Now, the biggest concern for both Wu and Zheng is who will succeed them after they retire. The shortage of teachers is a serious problem for these rural mini-schools.

As they are remotely located and have poor facilities, young teachers are unwilling to come. So far, most teachers of these schools either live nearby or are close to retirement.

Another problem is school facilities. Desks are old and broken, blackboards are just a section of wall painted black, the toilets are unclean and lights don't work.

However, the Ministry of Education said last December it will invest in school facilities and improve schools in rural areas.

In addition, more social organizations and volunteers have noticed these schools and have started to help. But there is still a lot to do.

Wu said the importance of education in rural schools should never be underestimated as it affects the future of millions of children.

"If the students need me and my health condition is okay, I am willing to keep teaching," she said.

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