By Emily Mitis
When asked what she likes best about her new school, 13-year-old Xie Ling said, “Now we have new computers!” And to be sure, the Hangzhou Television Hope Primary School is one of the more progressive examples of the Chinese government’s efforts to consolidate rural schools that started in July 2009.
Hangzhou Television Hope Primary School is located in mountainous Henglu township, a two-hour drive outside Hangzhou city proper. It is wealthier than average schools owing to sponsorship by Hangzhou Television Station and donations from surrounding businesses. Many of its 365 students are from Wang Road Township Central Primary, the school that previously occupied the building. Students travel by bus from surrounding villages such as Xiejiaqiao, a smaller village of 801 citizens that shut down its primary school as part of a consolidation effort.
China, with its fast-paced population growth, is now faced with the task of educating 26 percent of the world’s students on 2 percent of the world’s resources, says Gordon Sang, professor of education at Beijing Normal University. With 80 percent of China’s population living in rural areas, the government has recognized an outstanding need to modernize schools and improve teaching efficiency.
One major effort is the School Consolidation Project, which focuses on shutting down many small, poorly equipped rural schools on the village level, to open up larger, better-connected schools on town and county levels. Such schools now have access to technology, including computers with Microsoft Office packages and Internet access, and are helping to pull rural residents into the digital age.
“This [project] is good for the educational development of China” says Sang. “Some at first found it inconvenient to travel far, but now most if not all are seeing the benefits of better schools.”
The school’s way of doing business has changed markedly in the last two years, including the elimination of tuition and book fees that used to leave some families unable to enroll their children in school at all. To ensure affordability, officials have disallowed students’ parents from donating to the school, so that families aren’t faced with an added financial burden that might lead them to withdraw their children. In addition, the Chinese government has instituted a more tightly monitored national system that features a universal curriculum and exams that hold students to the same standards throughout China.
Initially, many local residents were upset by the changes, especially the fact that for many the new schools were no longer within walking distance from home, says Li Bin, 37, principal of the school since its consolidation in 2009. Traveling by bus to and from the villages costs each student 200 RMB ($30) per semester, but after the school administrators went door to door in the township to explain the changes, Li believes most parents agree the sacrifices are worth it.
Particularly helpful are the new pieces of technological equipment distributed in the school. With its new funding, the school has created a technology lab with 40 Internet-accessible desktop stations, a media room with a projector for large assemblies, and installed up-to-date media systems into each of the 24 classrooms.
These media stations include teaching tools such as audio speakers and large screen televisions wired to a computer, the monitor of which is built into the instructor’s desk.
“It is now easier to find how to teach the student best,” said 6th-grade math teacher, Xia Quinxia, 38, who believes the new technology will improve the lives of the students and teachers. “It used to take much more time to explain a lesson. Now, I can show them [on a screen] and continue to the next steps faster.”
The progress does not stop with just the students and teachers, all citizens from the villages are openly invited to join free-of-charge adult education programs held weekly in the computer labs. The program aims to teach people to harness the power of the Internet to sell their agricultural products and advertise their businesses.
The school is also shifting from teaching current technology to the invention of new ones. Once a week, an inventor’s interest group is held for the students in the fourth grade (about age 12) or higher. The best ideas are selected, created and then presented in science and technology fairs held at the county and national levels. One such award-winning invention is a public mail-box that extinguishes any lit cigarettes that may be tossed in accidentally.
Li predicts that many students, exposed to a type of education so dramatically different from previous generations’, will leave their villages in search of higher learning and better job availability in large cities. He also predicts many will come back and improve the conditions of the villages they were raised in.
“What we want to teach the most is the ability to learn, especially when it comes to adapting to modern ideas and technology,” says Li. “I hope all students gain a full perspective of the world and can help create a greater society, improve local conditions, and most importantly, develop their own lives and careers.”