A school that hopes to see fewer students
By Yuan Yuan  ·  2021-06-01  ·   Source: NO.22 JUNE 3, 2021


Du Fangmei practices giving a haircut to a mannequin head in the barber class in Fugong County,  Yunnan Province, on May 21(YUAN YUAN)

With her short hair dyed bright purple, 15-year-old Du Fangmei is easy to spot in her class. She practiced giving a haircut to a mannequin head as she talked to Beijing Review in her classroom. "My hair was dyed by the hairdressing teacher last month," she said in standard Chinese. "I like it a lot."

With her in the classroom are some of her classmates, all teenagers, and hairdressing teacher Duan Zhiwen, whom the students prefer to call shifu (master) rather than teacher to show their respect. The students all have stylish hairstyles, either created by their shifu or by each other. A boy with a buzz cut said he cut his hair by himself with the help of a mirror.

The clothing and jewelry worn by some of the students reflect their pride in their ethnic minority heritage. Fugong, where the school is located, is a county in Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture in Yunnan Province. Most of the residents there hail from either the Lisu or Nu ethnic groups.

The special school

The school was established with the special permission of the autonomous prefecture's government in order to address geographical inequalities in access to education. All the students at the school, mostly aged between 13 and 16, either had dropped out of primary school at a very early age or hadn't gone to school at all before entering this school. For these students, this school provides the only chance to get an education before adulthood.

"The reason they didn't go to school or dropped out early varies from family to family, but poverty was the major reason for their lack of access to education," said Zi Yuefang, headmaster of the school.

The headmaster added that the parents of these children attach relatively little importance to education and would rather keep their children at home to help with housework and farmwork. There is also another special reason for some children's previous lack of education, owing to the unique location of Fugong. The county is located on China's border with Myanmar, and some children in the county previously lived in Myanmar with their parents, missing out on China's compulsory education.

Ensuring that every child of school-going age receives compulsory education is one of the major tasks in China's campaign against poverty. As one of the six regions in the country affected most severely by poverty, Nujiang has made greater efforts to achieve this goal.

As part of these efforts, the local government established several teams of local officials who walked all the way to remote villages, visited every family to identify kids in need of education, and persuaded them to attend school. But as hundreds of these children were in their teens and couldn't catch up after years of missed classes, it became almost impossible for them to join regular schools. A vocational school tailored to the needs of these children was seen as the best solution.

To create a campus for these students, the local Party school squeezed its staff into a few offices and turned over the majority of its facilities. Tuition and accommodation in the school are free. The academic courses, including standard Chinese and mathematics, are on the morning agenda and students can choose to join any of the vocational classes, including cooking, hairdressing, motorcycle maintenance and electronics in the afternoon.

While preparations were underway to open the school, a relocation project launched by the local government helped many poor families to move there from remote villages in order to live closer to campus. The teachers at the school are "borrowed" from other middle schools in the county. In September 2019, the school welcomed its first cohort of 306 students.

New life

The first things students learn in the school are proper hygiene habits. Slogans painted on the walls include "Learn to Wash Hands," "Learn to Brush Teeth," and "Learn to Drink Boiled Water."

"What are common daily habits for us are a new lifestyle for many students here," Zi said. "The villages they come from mostly don't have running water, which doesn't allow them to maintain clean habits."

Speaking fluent standard Chinese is the "skill" that many students have learned to grasp in the school. Du Fangmei from the hairdressing class and her family belong to the Lisu ethnic group. She has five siblings. The eldest one is already married and the youngest one is still in kindergarten. Before coming to the school, Du had never received any education but could speak a little standard Chinese, which she had learned by watching television.

Hairdressing teacher Duan is from Hunan Province in central China, which is located over 1,000 km from the school. He moved to Fugong for love. When he was working as a hairdresser in Kunming, capital of Yunnan, he met his girlfriend, who is from Fugong and was studying in Kunming at the time. After graduation, the girl returned to Fugong and became a mathematics teacher at the school. After several visits to his girlfriend, he decided to quit his job in Kunming and join the school as a hairdressing teacher.

"These kids remind me of my life as a teenager," Duan said. Duan's parents went bankrupt when he was 14. The misfortune made him depressed and he became very rebellious. It was his hairdressing teacher that helped him a lot. "My hairdressing shifu taught me the skills and supported me financially. Without him, I wouldn't be what I am now," Duan said. "I want to do the same for the students in the school."

It has not been an easy task. Some students were bellicose and had bad habits including smoking and drinking. But Duan was patient, more patient than he thought he could ever be, and soon his patience was rewarded. The first sign of progress was a small gift he received from the students—a bottle of Coca Cola. Some of his students saved every penny they could to buy it for him. He saved the Coca Cola for a long time as it was "too precious" to drink.

The first group of his students left the school to earn a living in 2020. One of the students, Yan Sanche, was introduced by Duan to a hair salon in Kunming due to his outstanding skills. There Yan earned about 5,000 yuan ($783.5) a month, but after five months, he decided to return to Fugong to help Duan at the school. Duan described it as a relay baton "passed on from my shifu to me and now on to Yan."

In 2020, 206 students graduated from the school. Of those, some went on to regular vocational schools for further study, and some found jobs either locally or in other areas. In December 2020, two students from the school were awarded second place in the World Robot Contest, held in Foshan, Guangdong Province, which was a great encouragement for both the students and the school.

"We are happy to see the students' progress in the school," Zi said. "But we are also looking forward to seeing fewer and fewer students come in, and one day zero students entering the school, which means all the children in our county have access to regular schools for compulsory education." 

(Print Edition Title: Not One Less)

(Reporting from Nujiang, Yunnan Province)

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson

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