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March 30, 2011

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Homework help for migrants' kids

Children of poor migrant workers are either left behind in rural villages or live with their parents in cities, usually in cheap housing and without education or medical benefits.

Many don't go to school, some go to cheap unauthorized private schools and some go to public schools under a tuition-free program for migrants' children under age 16.

In Shanghai these children and their parents are officially called "new Shanghainese," not migrants, which has pejorative connotations. From 2008 to 2010, 420,000 children from migrant families went to school tuition-free, a tiny number considering the city has an estimated 5 million migrant workers. By 2020 the number is expected to be 9 million. Nationwide, there are around 240 million migrant workers.

If their children are lucky enough to go to a school, the after-school and evening hours can be difficult and dangerous. Their parents are working and have no time to supervise, help them with homework or take them out to play or see the city.

A brand-new volunteer after-school program helps 80 children whose parents work at Xin'an Wholesale Agricultural Market in Minhang District. From Monday through Friday it provides help with homework, special classes in art, science and other subjects. There's an afternoon session on Saturday. The two-hour tutoring program started in February.

The program is run by full-time staff and volunteers from the Compassion for Migrant Children (CMC), which runs other programs for migrants, such as family education, health workshops and personal development classes.

"This is not just a fun place for children to spend time after school, it's also a place where we help children acquire more knowledge, skills and handicraft skills," says Xiong Chunyan, a full-time staff member, tells Shanghai Daily.

There's no exact number of migrants or their children, because they move around and because almost none has hukou or official household registration that entitles them to free education, medical benefits and other services.

Xin'an Market has around 1,800 migrant worker vendors from 18 provinces, such as Anhui, Henan and Shandong. They are selling vegetables, fruit, meat, fish and various food products; many have children

The migrant families at the market have more than 200 children and adolescents. They include more than 100 pupils in nearby schools.

Before the program started in February, most helped their parents after school until late at night when the market closed. It was not uncommon to see children haggling with customers.

"Parents are not supposed to turn their children into laborers," says a market administrator surnamed Zhang. "But they feel it is safer to have children within eyesight so they let them help with work."

But the market can be very dangerous since produce trucks suddenly drive in to unload goods and children can be in the way.

Many neighbors say it's a pity for children to spend their childhood years working in a vegetable market.

"Actually, migrant children are also very curious to learn, and each has an inquisitive mind. They just lack the environment their non-migrant peers have," says neighbor Qiu Min.

After-school tutoring is common for children of urban residents, but not for migrants' children. For them, the attention is very special.

At Xin'an Market, the first of two hours is spent on homework; then children can take another class.

Third-grader Chen Chunmei now is able to finish all her homework in the tutoring class with the help of the volunteer tutor.

Two months ago, she was one of those children doing homework on the chopping block in parents' stalls. It was hard to concentrate while everyone was bargaining loudly around them. Now Chen and others have a quiet place to study.

The after-school center is at one end of the market, occupying two temporary classrooms once used as an instruction center for migrant women in the market. Now it's filled with light and laughter.

"I like the class and stay with my friends," says 10-year-old Chen. Her favorite is science class where tutors explained the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan.

"The radiation will not hurt us," the girl points out.

Many children get there early to get a seat.

Liu Qishuo, who studies sociology at East China Normal University, is one of eight tutors who volunteer on Wednesdays.

She helps with homework and organizes activities.

"The kids are quite cute. I feel like a big sister to them and we have a lot of interaction," says Liu who has volunteered in other programs.

She says the program is well managed and has detailed regulations on discipline.

Tutors are required to be well prepared and later discuss their experience in a group meeting with teachers and staff.

"Our discussions help us better understand the children's needs and provide tailored tutoring next time," says Liu.

At first the free tutoring attracted 50 students, then 60, now 80 are registered and still more parents want their children to attend. There's not enough room if all 80 come at one time.

Most of the stall keepers are not well educated since they left home at an early age to work.

Therefore, it is difficult for them to help their children on homework and they feel incapable of helping, which is an important reason they send children to the free tutoring sessions.

The first is safety and supervision.

"We are always concerned about maintaining program quality," says Grace Nieh, manager of CMC. "We would like to expand our program to serve all the migrant children in the community but also understand the (space) limitations."

CMC tries to develop strong relations with migrants themselves, staff at the market and administrators.

Xin'an Market is also concerned about migrants' welfare and for the past three years its staff has run two-month summer camps for children.

Wang Jialei, the camp organizer, says camps are also open to children who come from their villages to spend summer holidays with their parents.

"Migrant children seldom have the chance to go out and see the beauty of the city because the market is relatively far from the downtown. And their parents seldom have time to accompany them because they work seven days a week," says Wang.

Last year the market spent 6,000 yuan (US$914) on one camp, including a visit to the World Expo 2010.

In January, CMC, Xin'an Market and Jing Guang NGO Service Center jointly held a week-long pilot winter camp for 56 children.

Feedback was good and they are launching a long-term program in the market.

Nieh says the aim is a year-long program for the whole migrant community around the market, including parents as well as children.

"Sometimes matching needs with available resources is difficult," says Nieh, adding that they always seek innovative solutions.

In Shanghai, there are hundreds of social welfare activities for migrant children carried out in the 18 districts, however, most are not long term and may take place only for short periods or on special occasions.


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