Hu Yan's school days are hectic. She takes a full course load, including math, English, science and ethics. And her 45-minute lunch period affords no time to relax. That's when she dashes home, hangs laundry on the line, prepares lunch for herself and her younger brother, washes the dishes, then sprints back to school in time for her afternoon classes.
Despite the bustle, Hu Yan treasures each school day. Less than a year ago, she and her brother, Hu Bing, were out of school. With their mother, they floated from city to city as one of China's millions of migrant families.
These families, who hail almost exclusively from rural villages, drift to China's burgeoning cities in search of better incomes than subsistence farming can provide. They pay a steep price, however, for choosing to move toward greater opportunity. The Chinese hukou household registration system largely defines where people are allowed to live and work. As a result, migrants sacrifice both job options and the social benefits to which they would otherwise be entitled, such as health care, time off, pensions and public schooling for their children.
Yet Hu Yan's mother saw no other choice. After her husband died in a mine accident when Hu Yan was just two, she had to find work. Her search caused the small family to leave their native mountain village of Xiabiayang and join the 150 million migrant workers that constitute China's "floating population."
In all, the family weathered a dozen moves before they settled in their current home amid the crumbling tenements and grimy factories of Beijing's Daxing District, one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. Hu Yan's mother found factory job – and a one-room house on the other side of town. Because the commute is so long, the children rarely see their mother; she usually sleeps at the factory to gain more work time. In her absence, Hu Yan and Hu Bing are responsible for all household chores.
At last, however, they have returned to school. In spite of their rural hukou, Hu Yan and her brother were able to enroll at an innovative school located right in their district. The privately funded, not-for-profit Dandelion School, begun in April 2005 to serve unmet needs, is the capital's only middle school for the children of migrant workers.
The school currently has 530 students and 36 teachers, many of whom are migrants themselves. The director, Zheng Hong, wants to provide opportunities to even more students, and has amassed support from a variety of businesses, Mercy Corps and the Chinese government to do just that.
Urban life is a chaotic alternative to the villages that rural people like Hu Yan and her family knew. That tranquil life must now seem a distant dream. "In Chinese," Hu Yan reminisces, "Xiabaiyang means 'sheep coming down the mountain.' That's because, when it rains there, the drifting clouds look like white sheep on the mountain's slopes."
Today Hu Yan herself drifts no more. It's tough balancing housework with homework, but she knows the alternative and is grateful for the opportunity to finally attend school. What's more, Hu Yan was recently selected to participate in the School to Work Project, a partnership between Mercy Corps and The Dandelion School. Through this program, Hu Yan will receive intensive vocational and life-skills training and apprenticeships that will prepare her join China's skilled labor market.
Back in school after her busy lunch period, Hu Yan settles into her desk for history class. Her favorite era is that of Confucius. Like the storied wise man, she's sage beyond her years. She has endured harsh lessons in her short lifetime. Now, thanks to the Dandelion School, she can get down to the business of learning – and building a more stable, hopeful future.