A teacher instructs a music class at the school. [Photo/Xinhua]
Travel made easier
In recent years, a five-story teaching building was built to handle an influx of students. Concrete roads and a frequent bus service, introduced as part of a broader effort to improve rural infrastructure, make it easier for students to travel between home and school.
Classrooms are equipped with projectors, and the teachers－mostly young college graduates－are digitizing material so that it can be shown on screen, increasing the appeal of science and music classes.
Wang Liwei, a former researcher at the 21st Century Education Research Institute, a nonprofit organization in Beijing focusing on education policy research and advocacy, said the transformation at the Hope school in Jinzhai typifies the changes seen in many rural schools over the past decade. This transformation has come amid increased funding and policy support for rural education.
"When Project Hope was created, rural schools faced a dire shortage of resources," Wang said, referring to the lack of chairs, desks and other basic teaching equipment.
The project's popularity and growing public support for investment prompted the government to introduce policies aimed at boosting the affordability of rural schooling and upgrading education infrastructure in country areas.
In a landmark move in 2006, students in rural areas of western China were exempted from tuition and miscellaneous fees for the nine years of compulsory education. The following year, the exemptions were expanded nationwide.
Also in 2006, agricultural tax was abolished, making life easier financially for many parents who were farmers.
A girl answers a question in class at the school. [Photo/Xinhua]
In 2007, the central government implemented the Free Normal Education Program at six top teaching colleges to tackle a shortage of competent tutors in rural areas.
Those admitted to the program are exempt from tuition fees and receive a monthly allowance of 600 yuan while on campus. In return, they spend a specified period working in areas where there is a shortage of teachers.
In 2010, the National Training Program for Primary and Secondary School Teachers was implemented jointly by the ministries of education and finance.
The program offered village teachers in Central and West China free refresher courses or the chance to attend short-term training sessions at leading universities at the government's expense.
The national anti-poverty drive launched eight years ago made access to compulsory education a basic requirement for removing poverty, prompting local authorities to step up efforts to reduce rural student dropout rates.
Last year, Guizhou province－home to several of the country's poorest areas－saw a significant decline in compulsory education dropout rates.
Figures from the provincial government show the number of dropouts fell to just 52 across Guizhou by the end of last year, compared with more than 10,000 at the start of that year.
Students attend a computer lesson at Jinzhai Hope Elementary School. [Photo/Xinhua]
Project Hope school launched 30 years ago blazes a trail
In a lukewarm breeze on May 19, 1990, hundreds of farmers in Anhui province paused from their work during the busy springtime planting season.
In groups of two or three, they headed to a dilapidated ancestral temple in Nanxi township, Jinzhai county.
For decades, the ancient wooden structure had sheltered one of a number of teaching sites hidden deep in the Dabie Mountains on the border of Anhui, Hubei and Henan provinces.
On this pleasant day 30 years ago, a ribbon-cutting ceremony took place to inaugurate a new classroom building at Jinzhai County Hope Elementary School, the township's first proper educational facility.
Hundreds of students in school uniform sat in neat rows. Local officials and other speakers addressed the crowd in front of the two-story, reinforced concrete building. Red, yellow and pink flags tied to rails on the building fluttered in the breeze.
The event might not have appeared to be a game-changer at the time, and neither did it attract much media attention.
However, in hindsight, it marked a turning point for China's underfunded rural schools, which in the 1980s and '90s were struggling with rising student dropout rates caused by rural poverty.
The school was the country's first rural educational institution named after Project Hope, a program endorsed by the central government. Some of the students received Hope Scholarships for about 200 yuan ($28 at today's exchange rate).
Children attend Jinzhai County Hope Elementary School in Anhui province in April 1991. [Photo by Xie Hailong/For China Daily]
Launched in 1989 by the China Youth Development Foundation in Beijing, the program was part of a broader effort to help rural schools that were considered key to the social mobility of a largely impoverished population in country areas.
With the first Hope school marking its 30th anniversary, the foundation now has 20,000 such institutions nationwide and has provided scholarships to about 6 million rural students.
In the 1990s, advertising for the program appeared on national television, depicting young children reading avidly in dimly lit rural classrooms.
Authorization was given for the program's logo to appear on stamps, postcards and commemorative coins issued by the central bank, suggesting strong government endorsement at a time when charity efforts were new to the public.
The project's reputation grew rapidly nationwide throughout the 1990s. Experts said this was partly because it raised awareness of a dire situation.
In 1978, China launched the reform and opening-up policy, opening the door for high-speed economic growth. However, a wealth gap between urban and rural areas, and among different regions－such as coastal and inland areas－emerged and widened.
Tuition was crippling for rural families, who earned much less than urban factory workers, and many students in the countryside were forced to end their studies before finishing elementary school.
In 1988, China Education Daily reported that an average of 2.7 million rural children went unschooled each year.
Meanwhile, their urban counterparts were competing for places at leading universities at home and overseas.
The school is China's first rural educational institution named after Project Hope. [Photo by Xie Hailong/For China Daily]
Although now a household name in China, few people at the time were convinced about what Project Hope could achieve by pooling social resources to fight a deep-rooted problem.
To promote the first Hope school, Xu Xiangqian, an influential Communist revolutionary who fought guerrilla wars in the Dabie Mountains in the 1930s, endorsed the inauguration by writing the institution's name in Chinese calligraphy before presenting it to the school authorities.
Before the inauguration, the temple school was all that Nanxi township had to offer local students, according to Jin Gan, who started teaching there in 1983.
The temple site resembled those at most rural schools in the 1990s, with a handful of teachers for about 100 students scattered across several grades. This meant one member of staff had to teach several subjects and a number of grades, Jin said.
The roof leaked and there was no electricity. The windows were broken and covered with old newspapers, making the classroom dark, even on sunny days.
The desks were too high for young children and were also cracked, making writing difficult. Chalk sticks were broken and in short supply, so teachers had to use them sparingly.
This lack of basic infrastructure and public services persisted in rural areas until the 2000s, creating problems for schooling.
Xu Junfeng, who enrolled at the school in Nanxi township 20 years ago, said that as there was no bus service or canteen on campus he used to walk for 40 minutes to have lunch at home before returning for afternoon classes.
"There was a river on my way home, but no bridge. To get across, I had to step on stones," said Xu, 26, who now teaches at the school after graduating from a teachers' training college in Anhui in 2017.
Thirty years on, the former temple teaching site has morphed into a sprawling campus with dormitory buildings, a government-subsidized canteen and a sports field. More than 2,000 students from nearby villages are enrolled at the school.
tudents take lunch on the campus. [Photo/China News Service]
Despite the progress made, there is still an imbalance in educational resources.
This is mainly evident in the county-level education system, which comprises an "experimental school" in a county seat, several smaller "central schools" in affiliated townships, and multiple teaching sites in villages.
Wang, the former researcher, said, "It is a funnel-shaped resource distribution, with smaller schools at the bottom."
Despite a call by the central government to develop rural schools, local officials tend to allocate funding and other resources to larger institutions, where the benefits are more immediate and obvious, Wang said, adding that this has consequences.
Inadequate funding for smaller schools could result in them losing students to those that are better-financed－reducing them to teaching sites, or even forcing them to close, she said.
Wealthier rural parents are sending their children to school in a county seat, raising the cost of education and jeopardizing the future for poorer students who have fewer choices of education.
According to Peking University, of the 3,363 undergraduates it enrolled in 2016, only some 700 were from rural areas, even though such students account for more than half the nation's college applicants each year.
Deng Lei, a government employee in Anhui who was awarded a Hope Scholarship in 1998, said, "The paramount problem now facing rural students is not if schooling is available, but if quality schooling is available."
Li Kexin, who runs Planting Sun, a charity program that operates activities for children aimed at augmenting rural education, said that apart from a shortage of schools, countryside areas also lag behind in the availability of libraries and other key public services to broaden children's horizons.
Lower incomes for rural residents mean that education products and services are less affordable in the countryside－if indeed they exist, she said.
Li added that with their parents working in big cities, left-behind children are usually in the care of aging grandparents, who are less capable of meeting their basic needs, such as providing food and clothing.
Zhu Lixin contributed to this story.