By Claire Cardona and Lena Price
About 40 students crowded into a dimly lit classroom of Xin Xin Migrant School on the northern outskirts of Beijing call out as their teacher chalks answers to the day’s Chinese assignment on a blackboard.
A handful of schools in Beijing like Xin Xin take on the task of educating the more than 500,000 children of the 6.5 million migrant workers living in the city who cannot afford to attend public school. According to 2010 census data, one out of every three Beijing residents is a migrant worker and it is one of the fastest growing cities in China.
At Xin Xin, Feng Xia, an English teacher, said the teaching quality is inferior to government-supported public schools. “There is not enough facilities for teaching here and there is a lack of teachers so they must work overtime,” said De Feng An, a retired public school teacher who teaches at Xin Xin.
Located about an hour outside of central Beijing, the school staffs nine teachers to instruct more than 200 students from kindergarten to sixth grade. On average two teachers oversee about 27 children in public schools, said Gordon Sang, professor of education at Beijing Normal University.
The school offers courses in English, Chinese and math but cannot afford anyone to teach art or music.
To supplement the lack of resources, centers like Compassion for Migrant Children, which works with Xin Xin, provide free activities for students after class and on weekends such as art classes, film screenings and homework help.
Li Xin, a fifth-grade student from Inner Mongolia, said she uses the after-school programs for help with her English homework. She said it is useful to learn English because she wants to go to university and eventually become a doctor.
Xin Xin relies on tuition to meet operating expenses – students pay 750 RMB ($116) a semester, most of which goes to cover the 180,000 RMB ($27,784) per year rent. The leftover money is put toward a bus and supplies.
Most migrant workers in Beijing do not have a Beijing hukou, a household registration permit that states where a family is from. The hukou would entitle them to subsidized public housing, medical insurance and public education beyond middle school.
“The tuition fee is cheap because most migrant children here are not Beijing residents and they aren’t admitted to public schools,” Feng said.
The Outline of China’s National Plan for Medium and Long-term Education Reform and Development, released in July 2010, recommended steps to guarantee education for children of migrant workers.
The plan places responsibility in the hands of local governments and applies to public primary and middle schools, but makes no mention of high school education, which is inaccessible for many migrant children.
De said a lot of students who start at the school do not reach graduation. Six years ago, De said she began teaching a class of 30 first-grade students. Now only two or three students from her original class remain in the school.
“The families move to different jobs and maybe the kids must change schools or lose interest in their schoolwork,” she said.
A 14-year-old migrant worker from Hebei Province in North China confirmed that worry. Identifying himself only as Mr. Li, he said he finished middle school but has no plans to continue his education.
Li said he makes about 2,000 RMB ($309) a month as a construction worker in Beijing’s Dongcheng district, but most of his income goes to supporting his family.
That support, which many school-aged children like Li feel obligated to provide, might cost them an education.