Chil­dren’s hope

Ru­ral kinder­gartens help to pre­vent poverty trap

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tact the writer at houliqiang@chi­nadaily.com.cn

As China marks its third Poverty Alle­vi­a­tion Day on Oct 17, the suc­cess of Ton­gren, a city in the south­west­ern prov­ince of Guizhou, in pro­mot­ing preschool ed­u­ca­tion in ru­ral ar­eas is be­ing hailed as a pos­si­ble blue­print for the erad­i­ca­tion of poverty and a means of pre­vent­ing its reemer­gence.

Ini­ti­ated in 2012 by the China Devel­op­ment Re­search Foun­da­tion and Song­tao Miao au­ton­o­mous county in Ton­gren, the Moun­tain Vil­lage Kinder­garten pro­ject has es­tab­lished 100 new fa­cil­i­ties in iso­lated ar­eas, and has been ex­tended to cover the en­tire city.

Un­der the pro­ject, the pro­por­tion of vil­lages with kinder­gartens has risen to 100 per­cent from just 10 per­cent three years ago. More than 2,000 fa­cil­i­ties have been built for preschool­ers in Ton­gren’s ru­ral ar­eas, where seven of the 12 county-level re­gions have been des­ig­nated by the gov­ern­ment as na­tional-level poverty-stricken coun­ties.

Ac­cord­ing to the China Devel­op­ment Re­search Foun­da­tion, preschool ed­u­ca­tion is key to a stu­dent’s learn­ing and skill-adap­ta­tion abil­i­ties, be­cause about 50 per­cent of in­tel­li­gence devel­op­ment is com­pleted be­fore the age of 4. The foun­da­tion said in­ter­na­tional cal­cu­la­tions sug­gest that ev­ery in­vest­ment of $1 in preschool ed­u­ca­tion re­sults in a so­cial re­turn of $17.

Build­ing for the fu­ture

More than 70 per­cent of Ton­gren’s 4.27 mil­lion peo­ple are mem­bers of 29 eth­nic groups, in­clud­ing the Tu­jia, the Miao and the Dong peo­ples. In 2013, the av­er­age per capita in­come for farm­ers in the city was 5,397 yuan ($803), 40 per­cent lower than the na­tional level that year.

Now, the author­i­ties are hop­ing that Ton­gren’s suc­cess­ful com­ple­tion of a huge pro­ject, de­spite a lim­ited bud­get, will pro­vide a tem­plate for other poverty-stricken ar­eas.

In­stead of build­ing new kinder­gartens, most of the fa­cil­i­ties are lo­cated in dis­used pri­mary school class­rooms, vil­lage com­mit­tee of­fices or houses, ac­cord­ing to Long Li­hong, di­rec­tor of the Ton­gren City Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mis­sion.

Un­der the pro­gram, kinder­gartens were built in ev­ery area where it could be guar­an­teed that more than 10 chil­dren would en­roll, and the av­er­age cost of trans­form­ing and op­er­at­ing them is about 18, 000 yuan, she said.

In Houzhai vil­lage, the kinder­garten is based in three dis­used pri­mary school class­rooms. Two of them are used for ed­u­ca­tional pur­poses, while the other serves as a sleep­ing room where the kinder­garten’s 27 preschool­ers — mostly “left-be­hind” chil­dren from a nearby 1,400-strong Miao eth­nic com­mu­nity, whose par­ents are mi­grant work­ers— take a mid­day nap.

Gao Xi­u­long, the head­mas­ter, said two bro­ken bas­ket­ball stands have been made into a swing and sev­eral ta­ble ten­nis ta­bles now serve as draw­ing boards. Some of the chil­dren’s toys are made from dis­carded tires.

The kinder­garten in Muzip­ing vil­lage, in the Wan­shan dis­trict, was also once pri­mary school class­rooms, and al­most all the toys are made from lo­cally grown bam­boo.

Ton­gren’s to­tal rev­enue was 37.88 bil­lion yuan from 2011 to last year, and since 2012, the city gov­ern­ment has al­lo­cated 5 per­cent of its an­nual ad­min­is­tra­tive bud­get to the kinder­garten pro­ject. Dis­trict gov­ern­ments are given 10,000 yuan for ev­ery fa­cil­ity they es­tab­lish in the moun­tains, and the city gov­ern­ment al­lo­cates 300 yuan a year to ev­ery child for teach­ing ma­te­ri­als.

Long said ev­ery depart­ment of the city gov­ern­ment do­nates thou­sands of yuan an­nu­ally, and they also ac­tively seek spon­sor­ship from busi­nesses.

“Many kids in the ru­ral ar­eas are left-be­hind chil­dren. They are cared for by their grand­par­ents, who are usu­ally poorly ed­u­cated and un­able to do much for them. We have seen great im­prove­ments in the chil­dren’s lin­guis­tic skills, cog­ni­tive com­pe­tence and mem­ory ca­pac­ity since they en­tered the kinder­gartens,” she added.

Ac­cord­ing to tests con­ducted by East China Nor­mal Univer­sity in Ton­gren, af­ter spend­ing a year to 18 months at a kinder­garten, lan­guage com­pe­tence in chil­dren ages 4 to 5 im­proves by 23 per­cent, while cog­ni­tive com­pe­tence is 27 per­cent bet­ter and mem­ory ca­pac­ity rises by 34 per­cent.

Be­hav­ioral changes

The chil­dren’s be­hav­ior and hy­giene have also im­proved. Long Ji­awei, 4, and her sis­ter Long Jiali, 6, have lived with their grand­mother, ShiQingjiao, since last year, when their par­ents moved east to Zhe­jiang prov­ince for work. Shi has rheuma­tism, and the 75-yearold said all she can do for the girls is cook food and wash their clothes.

“My grand­daugh­ters’ aware­ness of hy­giene has changed a lot since they started at the kinder­garten. Now, they ask to change their clothes and have show­ers ev­ery day. They say they can’t fall asleep if they don’t take a shower,” she said.

Wu Changfeng cares for three grand­chil­dren be­cause their par­ents are work­ing in large cities. “If it were not for the kinder­garten, I would hardly have time to work on our farm. I’m look­ing af­ter three chil­dren, so I have to take them to the farm while I am work­ing there,” said the 54-year-old, whose hus­band has also moved away for work.

She said her 4-year-old grand­daugh­ter, Tang Han­jiang, who was tac­i­turn and rarely greeted vis­i­tors, has be­come far more out­go­ing since she started at the lo­cal kinder­garten.

Ris­ing en­roll­ment

Last year, the en­roll­ment rate in Ton­gren’s ru­ral kinder­garten’s jumped to more than 84 per­cent, from 45 per­cent in 2013. Al­though that’s 9 per­cent higher than the na­tional rate, the city gov­ern­ment plans to raise the num­ber fur­ther by up­grad­ing all of the moun­tain vil­lage kinder­gartens.

Long, from the city’s ed­u­ca­tion com­mis­sion, said that in the com­ing three years the fa­cil­i­ties will be up­graded and more fully qual­i­fied teach­ers will be em­ployed. She is also draft­ing a plan to pro­vide ev­ery child with a free sim­ple lunch.

It will take about 20 years for the full im­pact of the pro­ject to be seen, but ed­u­ca­tion is an im­por­tant way of erad­i­cat­ing poverty, ac­cord­ing to Long.

“In poverty-stricken ar­eas suchas Ton­gren, it’s key for peo­ple to make their way to col­leges or uni­ver­si­ties to erad­i­cate poverty. In ad­di­tion to oc­cu­pa­tional and com­pul­sory ed­u­ca­tion, im­por­tance should also be at­tached to preschool learn­ing, so we can build up the ta­lent pool and save fu­ture gen­er­a­tions from poverty,” she said.

We have seen great im­prove­ments in the chil­dren’s lin­guis­tic skills, cog­ni­tive com­pe­tence and mem­ory ca­pac­ity since they en­tered the kinder­gartens.” Long Li­hong, di­rec­tor of the Ton­gren City Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mis­sion

PHO­TOS BY HOU LIQIANG / CHINA DAILY

Top: Shi Ji­ahui, 3, eats lunch at the Houzhai Vil­lage Kinder­garten in Ton­gren, Guizhou prov­ince. Above: Chil­dren take a post-lunch nap at the Muzip­ing Vil­lage Kinder­garten in Ton­gren.

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