The sun has yet to rise over the low-slung tenements in eastern Beijing. Despite the early hour, 15-year-old Rao Piao gets up, dresses and leaves his family's one-room abode for a bus stop nearby. Six days a week, Rao catches a 5 a.m. bus for an hour-long ride to a special school for migrant children across town. He strides to the stop with urgency and purpose, not because he's concerned about missing the opening bell — that isn't until 8 a.m. — but because he wants to take full advantage of what may be his best chance to escape his family's cycle of poverty.
Rao lost two years of schooling while his family struggled to find its bearings in a city where access to public education is severely restricted. In 2004, his parents migrated to Beijing from their family farm in Anhui Province — a verdant, pastoral region about 700 miles inland — to seek steady employment and a better life.
They're not alone. China is witnessing a large migration of farmers from the central provinces, home to most of China's arable land, to booming coastal cities. Relegated to farming plots of land too small to provide for growing families, most migrate for the chance to be part of China's white-hot economy.
But the resettlement process is far from smooth. Migrant families face a lack of decent housing, health care, schooling and employment. They live on the periphery of the city and endure blatant discrimination by the mainstream community. Rao Piao's father is a day laborer at a construction site. His mother is sick and not currently employed. And Rao has struggled to find a school that will accept him.
Under Chinese law, public schools are open only to youth with a formal residence permit — a near impossibility for most of Beijing's estimated 300,000 school-aged migrant youth. Rao is one of the lucky ones. He won a full scholarship to the Dandelion School, Beijing's only middle-grades school for migrant kids. Mercy Corps is supporting the 376-student school in its effort to build a replicable educational model for children of migrant workers.
Founded two years ago by retired teacher Zheng Hong, the Dandelion School stands out among the city's other schools for migrant youth. It is one of the relative few schools that are officially recognized by the government, and the only one which offers classes beyond grade six.
Despite operating on a shoestring budget of small donations, the former factory's brightly painted interior bustles with positive energy. Class flower gardens at the front entrance contribute to the uplifting atmosphere. Neither the sparsely stocked library nor the lack of heat in some classrooms dampens Rao's enthusiasm for the place.
"I'm so happy to have this opportunity," says Rao, clad in sweatpants and a zip-up sweatshirt. "Before the Dandelion School, I had very little hope for my future."
Rao is the shy and studious type. He often skips recess to study and remains at school until 7 p.m., long after most other children leave. He's eager to learn English, and says he's not discouraged by his less-than-desirable scores on formal exams. "It only makes me work harder," he says soberly.
If Rao seems especially determined to make the most of his opportunity, keep in mind that upward mobility in China is far from the norm. Without places like the Dandelion School, Rao and other children of migrant workers will likely remain on the bottom rung of China's economy. Moving into the skilled labor market — which continues to grow as China develops — is their ticket out of poverty. Becoming a carpenter or learning how to repair a car pays more than joining a construction crew building high-rises in Shanghai.
Mercy Corps is helping provide better options for Rao and his classmates by incorporating vocational-skills training into the school's curriculum. The Phoenix Fund, a Mercy Corps entrepreneurial seed fund, covers the salaries of two vocational teachers and life skills counseling for the teens. The agency is also teaming with Nike to provide physical education training to Dandelion School teachers so they will be able to use the power of sport to empower youth and boost their self-esteem.
Rao hopes to use the technical classes help expand his post-graduation options. His dream is to join China's burgeoning entrepreneur class and earn enough to move his family into better housing.
"Without this school," he says, "my only option would be to go back to my home." Which, sadly enough in today's Chinese economy, is really no option at all.