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Lessons for Life
A Beijing school struggles gamely to give migrant workers' children quality education
By Li Fangfang | NO. 32 AUGUST 10, 2017
The Dandelion School in Daxing District, south Beijing (WEI YAO)

Félicie, an orphan, dreams of becoming a ballerina. Though she lacks formal training, the young girl is determined to get enrolled in a ballet school and runs away from her orphanage in rural Brittany to Paris. After overcoming a series of hurdles, she finally manages to be accepted as a student at the capital's Grand Opera House.

Seventeen junior high school students watched the Canadian-French animated musical Félicie as part of their creative writing summer camp at Dandelion School, a school for migrant workers' children in Daxing District in south Beijing.

Like Félicie, the children also face many obstacles. Though most of them were born in Beijing, they have to go back to their rural hometown in other regions for senior high school education because they don't have a Beijing hukou, the household registration that is mandatory for accessing many public service resources.

Hao Jingfang, who started the summer camp in July, found that the literacy level of most of the students at Dandelion is much higher compared to those left behind by their migrant worker parents and raised in rural areas.

"They can speak fluent Mandarin, have a broad vision and future dreams and do well in class," Hao, a science fiction writer, wrote in one of her blogs.

Hao Jingfang teaches creative writing at Dandelion School on July 18 (WEI YAO)

Opening minds

At the summer camp, which was meant to nurture creativity, students made up their own stories, supplementing them with paintings and acting after they were shown animation movies to explain how it is done. Hao tried to encourage them to draw on their own life experiences.

A 14-year-old came up with a dramatic tale. It began with a frantic cry for help. The protagonist walked toward the cry and found it came from a flower lying at death's door. She revived it and when the flower blossomed again under her care, a spirit appeared, saying, "Since you saved me, you are my master from today."

However, the girl didn't want to be anyone's master. She was an isolated soul after her mother's death, without any interest in making friends. And then, to make things worse, her father disappeared.

"While making up a story, people have to think what the character wants, why and how eagerly. We hope they will form the habit of thinking like that in their own lives too," Hao said.

As the mother of a 3-year-old girl and founder of an educational organization that seeks to foster children's creativity, she gives priority to creative thinking. "In the era of artificial intelligence, only with a creative mind can people find their place," she said.

Hao also works as a policy adviser with the China Development Research Foundation, a Beijing-based think tank on public policy issues. Her research on the educational problems of migrant workers' children led her to Dandelion, where she came in touch with the students.

To do something for them personally, she decided to be a volunteer at the school. "The creative mind will be a core competence in the future," she said. "People may not think it important currently, but in the coming decades, they will find it a key quality in their career. Fostering a creative mind in 10-year-olds is necessary for their future."

Hao also invited a painter, screenwriter and documentary director to guide the students in the camp, which was free. "The most important thing is that students should not be imitators but creators," Hao said. "No matter what their stories are, I want them to understand life via storytelling."

Love's labor

Hao is one of the 1,300 volunteers who have guided students in various areas including the arts, sports and language at Dandelion this year. Students from universities at home and abroad have long-term cooperation with the school to help broaden its students' visions and enhance their academic learning.

"The school stands out in campus culture-building, compared to public schools which mainly admit Beijing residents," Hao said.

Most of the schools for migrant workers' children in Beijing are privately run and many are not registered.

Dandelion was established by Zheng Hong, a Harvard graduate, in 2005. She found there was no middle school among the over 200 schools for migrant workers' children in Beijing at that time, which made it impossible for them to complete the nine-year compulsory education. Also, many of the unlicensed schools were profit-oriented. All this made her determined to found one that would be registered and non-profit.

"We didn't set any admission threshold. Most of the students did poorly before they were enrolled," Qin Ying, a physics teacher from the school, told Beijing Review. "Those with difficult family conditions are given priority in admission." Students can also live in the school, which is better for their education compared to living in rentals with a poor environment.

The school runs mainly on social aid and can accept only about 200 students. Construction of a new campus, which would be able to accommodate 800 students and 100 staff members, was suspended for a year due to financing problems. But now, thanks to donations, it has partly resumed.

However, one school is far from enough for all migrant children living in Beijing. Hao thinks help from society can provide only supplementary educational resources or funding for schools like Dandelion. What they need is continuous investment to guarantee their long-term operation.

"I once got a message from a graduate, saying what he had gained most from studying in Dandelion was the conviction that there was love in this world," Zheng told Xinhua News Agency. She said it moved her and made her determined to do more for these children.

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar

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