Rural students dare to dream

Updated: 2016-06-20 08:15

By Erik Nilsson in Huichang, Jiangxi Province(China Daily)

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Rural students dare to dream

Students study at Huichang Zhulan Demonstration School's primary school. Photos Provided To China Daily

Editor's Note: Huichang Zhulan Demonstration School is a pioneering project among rural-education initiatives. The school in Jiangxi province's underdeveloped Huichang county is a pilot, in that it is the country's only school to combine basic and vocational education. China Daily spent a day not only observing but also actively participating in the learning process.

Liu Qianyi wants to be an engineer. Jiang Ruifang dreams of becoming a writer. Chen Yan hopes to work as a translator.

These 16-year-olds at Huichang Zhulan Demonstration School, which opened in 2007, are better equipped than most rural Chinese students to realize their aspirations.

That's thanks to their school's experimental approach that blends basic education with such vocational skills as agricultural science and food processing - the major industries in Jiangxi province's Huichang county, where roughly one in 10 residents live below the poverty line. "We're a pilot school for rural reform," headmaster He Fasheng said. "It's a new idea for running a school."

Vocational majors include computer science, food processing, biomedicine and crop cultivation.

A total of 33 graduates from Zhulan's vocational school have enrolled in university since 2013, when its first four went on to college. "Some return home," said the vocational school's vice-principal, Zeng Wenliang.

Currently, 174 teachers instruct 2,428 students from preschool through high school. About 100 adults take vocational classes.

The school is the brainchild of elderly philanthropist Li Yonghai, who provides four-fifths - 40 million yuan ($6.16 million) - of its budget. Most of the rest comes from the government. Smaller donations also come from enterprises, as well as local farmers who chip in 50 or 100 yuan a time.

A statue near the campus entrance of two hands reaching toward the sky inscribed with the words "full of love beneath heaven" commemorates all who have donated.

"Farmers welcome and support our school," He said. "We must remember their names and contributions."

Villagers donate because they recognize the importance of agricultural advancements, according to school staffers.

"We're a rural school, so students should learn farming," said the high school's vice-principal, Chen Suzhen. "Our fields are training bases."

Students study the cultivation of local crops such as oranges and passion fruit and produce rice noodles and dried tofu - locally processed foodstuffs.

They grow the produce that is served in the canteen, with the surplus sold by teachers and the profits helping in part to fund the school.

Passion fruit that sells for 30 yuan per kilogram is grown in a half-hectare greenhouse. Biomed majors tend a 2-hectare herb field. Students also pitch in at the 6.7-hectare orange orchard and pig farm that hosts 3,800 trees and 250 animals.

There were more of both last year. Financial woes forced the sale of 550 pigs. Citrus greening disease meant many orange trees had to be chopped down. The surviving trees have fewer blossoms than usual this year.

The orchard serves as a practice base for students, and a demonstration zone to test new varieties and teach local farmers better cultivation.

Tangelos from nearby Fujian province were recently introduced here.

"Previously, only elderly residents stayed in Huichang. Younger people migrated," said Zeng.

"That's partly because local enterprises weren't efficient. But that was, in turn, because of poor human resources."

The school hopes to break this cycle. "Graduates need work, and industry needs workers," Zeng said. "We need to link businesses to vocational schools."

Increased cooperation with local enterprises in the food and service industries is one approach the school is taking. Another is applying to offer e-commerce as a major, as the sector is flourishing in the county.

Most of the school's oranges were sold online last year. It also sells passion fruit on peer-to-peer platforms.

But some students' dreams are even more ambitious. Ninth-grader Liu Qi wants to teach English. "English is useful," she said, speaking the language proficiently.

Her classmate, Xiao Quanzhou, wants to work with math.

"I want to go to university in Nanchang, where my brother studies," he said.

And 18-year-old vocational student Liu Juan hopes to go to work in information technology in Guangdong province's Shenzhen. "It offers more opportunities to develop myself," Liu said. "Then I can return and enjoy a career in Huichang."

In the next issue, we will report on how an official helps keep Huichang on course.