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Nourishing Roots

China, February 6, 2008

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Thousands of China’s urban youth are left without schooling because they are the children of migrant workers. Legally, these children are not allowed to go to school because their registration, or hukou, is in their home village instead of their adopted city.

Zheng Hong, a former university professor of micropaleontology — the study of fossils no bigger than four millimeters — could no longer sit back and observe this increasingly devastating situation. In 2005 she founded the Dandelion School, the only school for middle school-aged migrant youth in Beijing, in one of the city’s poorest and most migrant-populated neighborhoods. She realized that inaction would result in a vicious cycle of poverty: the children of migrant families would become the next generation of migrant workers, and would remain at the bottom rung of the Chinese economy and society.

But Zheng Hong is a woman of action. She marshaled a small but powerful network of friends, across different nations, who reached out to businesses and foundations to make something happen. Incredibly, within a few months of her initial vision and discussions with friends, the Dandelion School opened in a renovated switchboard factory. The school’s partnership with Mercy Corps began soon afterward.

True to her meticulous background, there is even deep, well-considered significance behind the school’s name.

"Migrant families in China are often called 'floating families.' Where they float, they have no control," Zheng Hong explains. "Still, they are beautiful, durable, quiet — and everywhere. They grow roots wherever they can find land. They survive and look for a better life."

She also noted that, whenever visitors come to the school, they carry the experiences they have and spread the word to others like dandelion seeds.

Mercy Corps' Cami Martin took time to speak with the creative force behind this extraordinary school.

Mercy Corps: Can you tell us about the migrant situation in China, and why you started the school?

Zheng Hong: The migrant population has been growing over the past 20 years. The last I heard it was at 150 million. Five million of these migrants are in Beijing and 500,000 of [them] are school-age kids.

Most migrants are peasant workers and [come to Beijing] for a variety of reasons. In some cases they can no longer live off the land so they have come to the city to look for opportunities. They end up taking the lowest paying jobs such as construction, or growing vegetables and fruits and selling them on the street. It is difficult for these migrants to live [on] the low salary they make.

And, since they have moved into the city and the kids are not [official] residents, they are not allowed to go to public school. The government is trying to solve this problem, but it takes time. I could no longer watch these kids growing up without an education, so I started the Dandelion School. Until the government fixes this problem we will work with the kids so they have an opportunity to learn.

The south of Beijing is one of the most concentrated areas with migrants, so that's where we started looking for a school. We found an abandoned factory and, through fundraising, borrowing money and an American gentleman who matched the funds we raised, we were able to start construction in May 2005.

What were the next steps?

In July 2005, we were halfway done with the school and decided to run a summer camp for migrant kids to see how the school would run. With 60 kids and 15 teachers, we were able to run a successful two-week-long camp. This gave us confidence that the school would run well, so we recruited more teachers and kids and, in August 2005, it was officially opened with 120 students.

After the doors opened, students kept coming and we ended up with 180 kids. After one year, our school had doubled in size with 360 students.

What is the age range?

We have kids from 11-17 [years of age], in the 7th through 9th grades. There are 10 percent more boys than girls. Currently, we have 350 students living in the dorms we provide. Providing dorms is a necessary step for many students, because most living conditions in migrant homes are awful with not enough space or light to study. Often times, these kids won't have enough time to study because they need to help their parents around the house and with cooking.

What kinds of classes are taught at the school?

The basic subjects: writing, math, computers and science. We also provide a vocational skills class once a week. Many students don't know what is available in the working world and have no idea what kind of career they want. So, we have started bringing in people from different careers, as well as bringing the students to different work sites so they can get an idea of what they want.

What are some challenges you have faced at the school?

The first is how to keep the teachers. We have started providing teachers with professional development training, so that even though they could make more money at another school we give them a personal reason to stay. The second challenge is financial stability. Since kids are from low-income families we cannot charge them to go to school. And government support is limited since we are not a public school. We rely heavily on donations.

How is the school funded?

Fifteen percent of our funding is donated from the families, although we'd like this number to be less. We fundraise for the rest. We get a lot of money from the Dandelion Project — a group of about 50 women who wanted to do something to give back to society. We refer to them as the big dandelions, and the students at our school are the little dandelions.

These women took the Dandelion School as their first project. They help in different ways, such as sponsoring a child or donating clothes. They have also used their resources to build us a library, computer lab, chemistry lab, physics lab and biology lab. I don't know what we would do without the big dandelions.

The local government has also become more and more supportive. They have given us ping-pong tables, basketball hoops and some funding to help fix the school.

How do students find out about the school?

We have teachers go out to different locations, such as wholesale markets, to hand out materials and talk about the school. When the students come to the school, we give them a test to see what grade to start in. The test is not difficult, and our teachers work with the students to make up for lost time.

How is the transition from village to school life?

There are a lot of basic things these children have never been taught and have never seen. For instance, [many have never known] how to make a bed and how to take a shower. A lot of these children were never taught basic sanitation and health needs, so we provide a school doctor to help with this transition.

There's also a big effort from teachers to stop kids from spitting, drinking alcohol, smoking and fighting. But kids change fast and enjoy their new environment. One big challenge is getting kids to study, and then from simply studying, to studying well. A lot of our teachers are [also] from a migrant background, so this helps with the transition.

How is the school doing right now?

We have 530 students, 36 full-time teachers and 4 administrative staff. Going into our third year, we have developed an attachment to the kids. It's wonderful to see how hard they work to make up for the schooling they have missed in the past.

[Last] June, we had our first group of graduates who were allowed to take the standard exams in Beijing. This is one step forward towards equal opportunity for these migrant youth. The kids have really come a long way.

In the beginning, only five students passed their exams and, this year, 37 did. These 37 students are now able to go to a vocational high school, through scholarships from Mercy Corps. For the kids who did not pass their exams, we will continue working with them at the Dandelion School until they are ready to move on. We need to find a model to help better prepare our students after graduation, and this is what we are doing with the School to Work Project [with Mercy Corps].

Can you explain this project?

Through a partnership with Mercy Corps, we are working with 37 students at the vocational high school — as well as students here at the Dandelion School — providing ten months of vocational and life skills training which will result in employment, apprenticeships or further vocational training opportunities. In this way, we are able to give these youth employable skills and connections to the job market so they do not end up in the same situation as their parents.

What other ways has your relationship with Mercy Corps helped the students?

It opens our children's minds to the wider world and the range of humanitarian ideas. It gives them a deep desire to help.

I remember, not too long ago, a young student got up in front of his class for a presentation. One thing he said was this: "My dreams are very simple — I just want to be able to help others."

He moved the entire classroom, including his teacher, to tears. That's the kind of awareness — and change — we're trying to create here.