Scholarship and education

Boom and bust for "hope schools"

Dapeng Hope School

An exposé in the Chutian Metropolis Daily last month turned the spotlight onto Changyang County, Hubei Province, revealing that an astonishing number of primary school buildings no longer had any connection to education. Some had been converted to animal pens or junk storehouses, a few had been taken over the by the local village committee for use as office space, and many other were simply rotting in place.

Particularly galling to many readers was the fact that out of 76 "Hope Schools" (希望小学), buildings whose construction was funded by donations, 58 had been abandoned. Project Hope is a well-known charity effort run by the China Youth Development Foundation that funds "hope schools," and while it later turned out that most of Changyang's "hope schools" were unrelated to the CYDF, the name similarity gave the story legs.

Short-sighted overbuilding was to blame, an in-depth follow-up investigation in The Beijing News reveals. Driven by performance targets related to a program promoting nine-year compulsory education (普九, translated as "nine-year program" in the text below), villages were strongly encouraged to build their own primary schools, which they did by soliciting donations, taxing the villagers, or going into debt.

At first, the project succeeded in bringing education to the doorstep of poor families who may never have considered sending their children to school. But when the effects of national family planning initiatives kicked in, the student body at these schools became too small to justify their continued operation, and the buildings were abandoned, sometimes after only a few years of use.

The investigation translated below follows the rise and fall of Dapeng Hope School, a primary school funded by local businessman Yang Dapeng in the village of Yangjiaping, Changyang County.

400 Nine-Year Program schools abandoned in Changyang, Hubei

by Sun Xuyang / TBN

Even across several hills, you used to be able to see the six characters reading "Dapeng Hope School" (大鹏希望小学) glittering in the sun.

Today, the name is split into two parts. "–pe School" was torn down a few years ago when copper prices were high, leaving only "Dapeng Ho–" to mystify passers-by.

The three or four kilograms of copper scavenged from those three characters may have brought 200 yuan. As to the perpetrator? Yang Dapeng doesn't care about the answer anymore — after all, the school's long dead, so what's the use of leaving a sign up?

In 1996, Yang was 28, and over his parents tearful objections, he donated 70,000 yuan to build an elementary school in the village. The village committee spent 300 yuan on a monument that called him "A spiritual exemplar to be praised by the world."

The praise lasted less than three years. Then the school was abandoned, leaving Yang to feel that his donation had become a joke.

The anger and sadness he felt were not rare in Changyang, a Tujia Autonomous County under Yichang City in Hubei Province. Seventy-six schools bearing the "hope school" sign were built in the county over the past twelve years, and 58 have been abandoned. In fact, Changyang once had a total of 519 primary schools, but only 78 remain today.

The classrooms of abandoned "hope schools" have been turned over to pigs and chickens, or have simply been left to the elements.

"200 year lease to recoup costs"
How to handle these empty school buildings? Yang Dapeng thought for a while: "All I can say is in the future, don't waste the money and manpower."

On the afternoon of November 24, Yang Dapeng had had a bit to drink when he arrived once again in front of "Dapeng Ho–."

Scrap wood was piled on the first floor of the three-storey building. The second and third floors were empty. A scrawny dog tied to a metal gate barked madly at visitors.

Yang Dapeng in one of the classrooms of his school

"It's been almost ten years since there's been waterproofing done," Yang said, pointing to the mildew on the walls. "And no one does anything about the broken windows. When it rains, water pours into the classrooms and the walls get soaked."

The classrooms still have pictures and quotations from Marx and Lenin hanging up. One blackboard bears a slogan left behind by teachers and students: "Studying is good, so study more and study well."

"The sentiment is good, so no one can bring themselves to erase it," said Ms. Xiang, a villager who rents the classroom. She pays the village committee 1,000 yuan a year to rent the school.

As Yang figures it, the school had a market value of more than 200,000 yuan twelve years ago. He laughed: "We'll make it back in 200 years."

Rents are higher in other places. The Houfengxi Hope School in nearby Longzhouping is a four-storey building, and a chicken farmer once paid 2,500 for a two-year lease.

That school's commemorative inscription says that it was built at a cost of 370,000 yuan.

Because of a downturn in the sector this year, the chicken farmer pulled out, leaving the classrooms of the empty building permeated with the odor of chicken droppings and mildew. Most of the windows are broken, and from a distance it looks like an abandoned construction project.

These primary schools are listed as assets of the village committee. Three kilometers away from Yangjiaping there's another school, the Chunhua Hope School, constructed using a donation from Zhao Chunhua, the president of a private hospital in Guangzhou. It was in use for a little more than three years before it was abandoned in 2000, after which the Hezi'ao Village Committee turned it into an office building.

Conversion into village committee offices is probably the best fate available for these schools: most of them end up as scrap storehouses or animal pens, if they aren't simply abandoned altogether.

"No one wants to buy these buildings," said Tian Mingyue, assistant party secretary at the Changyang Education Bureau. He said that many of the schools are in out-of-the-way locations, and their design and construction are less than ideal.

Yang, who works in the construction business, shares Tian's view. The buildings are only designed to hold classrooms, and no one thought they'd one day be abandoned. "These remote areas don't need supermarkets or hotels, and people choose city suburbs to locate their factories."

Even though he's critical of simply abandoning school buildings, Yang hasn't come up with any good way to handle them.

"All I can say is in the future, don't waste the money and manpower," he said.

Town officials sought out donors at midnight
Yang Dapeng had assets of 100,000 yuan, and spent 70,000 to build the school. His parents repeatedly tried to dissuade him.

"No one cares about me now," Yang said. But back then, "the town officials came to the county seat at midnight to find me so I could donate money."

In the summer of 1996, the vice-mayor of the town of Jinyangkou came to Yangjiaping to meet with villagers and deliver his superiors' directive: "Every village should build a primary school." According to the directive, the more than 700 residents of Yangjiaping each had to contribute 250 yuan to a school construction fund.

Yang immediately objected. He asked the village director, "Your family's pretty well-off. Will it be hard for you to contribute 1,000 yuan?"

"It'll be hard."

"If it's hard for you, then how are villagers worse off than you supposed to contribute?"

"But building schools is national policy."

"Screw it. I'll pay to build it myself."

The vice-mayor heard Yang's words but ignored him, thinking he was just venting. Yang went back to his job in the county seat.

At 11 that night, the vice-mayor visited his home and told him that the town party secretary was furious that a willing donor had been ignored. He had been ordered to visit Yang and offer his apologies: "If you don't find him, don't think of coming back to work."

Yang has a vivid recollection of what happened next. He had assets of 100,000 yuan and donated 70,000. He also provided cement and steel bars from his workyard.

All able-bodied adults in Yangjiaping had to assist in the school's construction. Because they'd been exempted from the school construction levy, the villagers worked enthusiastically and pulled long nights to keep on schedule.

When Yang built the school, his family was still living in an old tile-roofed house. He said that his parents tearfully tried to dissuade him several times, but he persisted, saying that he had lots of opportunities to make money. This was a school that would last decades and give students a chance to get an education.

Yang still wants to put the school to use, in memory of his first girlfriend, Sun Yi.

Sun came from a poor family in Changyang, and became a temporary instructor after she graduated from high-school. She met Yang later, after she went south looking for work. In her spare time, she would read self-study materials in Chinese literature. At Christmas, 1993, Sun told Yang that her biggest dream was that her hometown in the mountains could have its own school. However, her dream came to an abrupt end in the early morning of May 21, 1994, when she was returning home from the late shift. She was thrown from a motorcycle as it rounded a corner, and then her head was run over by a speeding truck.

Yang cannot forget Sun's dream, and like her, he dreams of changing his own fortunes and the face of his hometown.

A grand "nine-year program" for poor counties
Education official Tian Mingyue said that the schools' swift construction was "satisfactory," and primary school enrollment exceeded national standards. But before long, the Dapeng Hope School succumbed to a merger.

Dapeng Hope School was completed on New Year's Day, 1997. An assistant secretary from the Changyang Youth Committee and a leader from Jinyangkou came to the site to offer their congratulations.

On that day, Yangjiaping branch secretary Yang Dake breathed a sigh of relief.

The guiding principle handed down from Yang's superiors called for "people's education and village school construction," so a village officials like himself could not rest until his mission was complete. "If the pace of work slackened for even an instant, town officials would be over to conduct ideological work, and they'd get you to come round, even if it took all night."

There are more than 400 villages in Changyang County. But Tian Mingyue, the assistant party secretary with the Education Bureau, said that when the nine-year compulsory education program was launched over a decade ago, the county planned to build more than 500 primary schools to meet program targets, giving small hamlets their own schools and some villages two schools apiece.

Records from the county education bureau show that "bringing schools to the doors of poor and lower-middle peasants" was the "general consensus" for school construction at the time. It was also believed that the enrollment rate required by the Nine-Year Program would not be attainable without doing so.

Tian said that in Changyang's mountainous region, farmers did not understand the necessity of education before the Nine-Year Program was launched: "There were no schools nearby, so they wouldn't let their kids go to school."

At the same time, the program's acceptance criteria had strict standards for school buildings, meaning that any village or town school that didn't measure up would be seen as holding back the work record of the entire county. Those responsible would be criticized or punished.

"It was only later that I realized why the town official had come late at night to see me," Yang Dapeng said.

Pressure from the Nine-Year Program was intense, but local finances were limited and as a result, most village schools were financed by donations, levies on villagers, or even through government debt.

"If lots of temporary classrooms were built in response to the needs of the time, would there be so many empty buildings today?" Tian wondered.

A staffer with the county education bureau admitted that there was considerable opposition to levies at the time. Changyang is on the national list of poor counties, and when many of the plain, honest farmers heard the amount they would have to pay, "it drove them to tears."

Getting donations to build a school, therefore, was exceedingly good news for the government. They even erected monuments as signs that they would always remember.

Schools funded by donors were given the name "hope school." According to incomplete statistics, Changyang had 76 "hope schools," the most in Hubei Province.

Construction on Dapeng Hope School finished right as Changyang was undergoing city-level assessment for the "nine-year program." Two years later, in 1999, it passed national-level review. The accomplishments of the school construction program were "satisfactory": "Primary school enrollment surpassed 99%, exceeding national requirements," Tian said.

However, in the second half of 1999, a few months after passing the "nine-year program" review, a merger was declared for Dapeng Hope School.

A student shortage led to the mergers
Su Yong, vice-director of the Changyang Education Bureau, said that some of the more than 400 schools that were merged had only seven or eight students remaining.

The mergers took place for one simple reason: a lack of students.

When Dapeng Hope School was completed in 1997, it had around seventy or eighty students. To guarantee a good promotion rate for the graduating class, students in the fifth grade were transferred to a nearby school which had better faculty. The number of entering students declined each year, until by the start of the fall semester, 1999, there were fewer than thirty students divided among the six large classrooms in the three-storey building.

A drop-off in students was the problem faced by all schools that were later merged. Statistics from the Changyang Education Bureau show that in 1998, the county had 79,141 students in the compulsory education age-range; in 2008 there were only 42,799. For primary school-aged children, those numbers were 50,000 and 18,000.

Zhijiang Hope School, a primary school in Zhengjiabang Village, Longzhouping Town, funded by the Zhijiang Municipal Government, had 180 students three years ago, but this fall it had only 104.

A village official said that in two years, that school will be merged, too: "We couldn't prop it up if we wanted to."

The decline in the school-age population is closely tied to lower birth rates. Today, very few village families have more than two children, and young men and women's desire to have children has fallen off, as well.

These phenomena are reflected not only on the record books of the family planning office, but in the primary school classroom as well. And many children have gone off with their parents and attend school elsewhere.

Su Yong, vice-director of the Changyang Education Bureau, said that some of the more than 400 schools that were merged had only seven or eight students remaining.

Yang Dapeng said that he wondered back in 1996 whether the schools constructed then would ultimately be torn down after a few years because the number of children in the village was declining.

Dapeng Hope School was merged relatively early on, and large-scale mergers in Changyang only started in 2001.

At that time, the number of school-age children in rural areas was falling unchecked, while funding for city and town schools was becoming increasingly tight. The Changyang Education Bureau combined excess rural schools to streamline resource allocation.

Massive debt after the boom
To date, Changyang still has 17.8 million yuan worth of "nine-year program"-related debt it has yet to repay. Nationally, the figure is reportedly nearly 60 billion yuan.

Yang Dapeng wonders whether the Education Bureau made a mistake in eliminating schools. For its part, the Bureau says it's been wrongly accused.

Tian Mingyue said that according to national regulations, classroom allocation for compulsory education is done for periods of five years, so changes in enrollment numbers are not entirely unpredictable. However, at the end of the last century, Changyang, like the rest of the country, had a "graded school system" under which counties ran high schools, towns ran junior middle schools, and villages ran primary schools. Departments of education could make recommendations but had no authority to interfere in selecting school locations. The biggest goal for towns at the time was to complete their tasks for the Nine-Year Program.

Tian said that the effect of the Nine-Year Program on social progress should not be underestimated. "However, on a playing field as large as the entire country, a localized solution for each area would have been better."

Tian said that the schools of the 1990s were handling the children of the last baby boom of the family planning era. But Changyang, which was listed as a Tujia Autonomous County in July, 1984, had one additional baby boom under liberal family planning policies ethnic minorities. These children were in school at the same time as the Nine-Year Program," so schools at the time "were built to reach targets, even though they were certain to be empty later."

Tian suggests that if temporary classrooms were set up on a case-by-case basis, there wouldn't be so many primary schools lying idle today.

Right now, with more than 400 empty schools, Changyang still hasn't repaid all of the debt it incurred pursuing the Nine-Year Program.

The county government issued a notice on July 7 stating that between January 1, 1995, and June 30, 1999, it borrowed a total of 22.8536 million yuan for the Nine-Year Program, of which it has yet to pay back 17.8 million. In most cases, the vast majority of Nine-Year Program debt was used for school construction.

Changyang's problems aren't unique. According to Central China Normal University professor Fan Xianzuo, there is nearly 60 billion yuan worth of Nine-Year Program-related debt in the country, and 3.1 billion in Hubei alone.

Fan said that school mergers due to shrinking student populations is a common phenomenon across the country. There are 340,000 primary schools in the country today, far fewer than the 830,000 there were in 1985.

What worries Fan is that the current trend of school mergers may make it difficult for some children to enroll in school.

New problems and "hope"
Yang Dapeng firmly believes that the school he built is a "Hope School," because "it was built on hope."

Fan's concern has occurred to Yangjiaping branch secretary Yang Dake.

In 1999, when Dapeng Hope School had just been closed, Yang went to town in search of an explanation. The answer: Merging primary schools was policy, just like the Nine-Year Program, and it couldn't be changed.

He could do nothing but return home to console the villagers. Afterward, the children of Yangjiaping had to attend schools in Dengjiaba or Panjiatang, both around 5km away.

They were sent by motorbike, or simply lived at school. "It wasn't convenient, but nothing could be done."

At 4pm on November 23, Li Yanqin, an English teacher at Zhijiang Hope School in Zhengjiabang, surveyed the student dorm.

Inside were cramped rows of beds, the students' simple tableware laid at the head of each one.

Twelve-year-old Xiao Wang, playing games out in the yard, said that some students would wake up in the middle of the night crying, "Mommy," and then everyone would start crying.

The school has only 104 students, and 23 of them live on campus. One of the teachers doubles as their cook.

Li Yanqin and the others may not be able to stay very long. A village official said that the school is scheduled to be merged within two years.

For more than a week, the 78 "hope schools" in Changyang, including Zhijiang, have been the focus of a storm of public opinion.

On November 14, Chutian Metropolis Daily reported on the 58 schools that had been abandoned, catching the community's attention. The similarity of the "hope school" name to "Project Hope" schools was particularly eye-catching. On November 28, China Youth Development Foundation deputy secretary general Gu Xiaojin said that the Hubei branch of the Foundation had funded the construction of eighteen schools, four of which had been abandoned, but that the rest of the schools had no connection to the CYDF.

"For a long time there was no clear rule about naming Hope Schools," said Tian Mingyue, suggesting that this formulation could easily confuse the public. He said that the Changyang Education Bureau had been prepared to give geographic names to all of the schools in the county, but dropped the project after difficulties were discovered: "For example, Baozhen Communications Hope School was sponsored by the Hubei Provincial Communications Department. If you get rid of 'communications' and 'hope,' you'll upset the sponsor." Tian said that the problem was even worse for schools funded by individuals.

Yang Dapeng firmly believes that the school he built is a "Hope School," because "it was built on the hope" that children would be able to go to school.

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There are currently 5 Comments for Boom and bust for "hope schools".

Comments on Boom and bust for "hope schools"

i was hoping to see a quote by a clueless apparatchik saying something like:

Objectively speaking, we can say that the problem of nine-year compulsory education for the rural children has been solved. The buildings can now be put to appropriate better uses.

is it too cynical for me to say that had these villagers not been fleeced to finance these buildings, they would have been fleeced to fund something else?

or less cynically, let me ask what price we can put on the education of the tens of thousands of children schooled in these buildings before the buildings were abandoned to commercial use, children who would not otherwise have been schooled at all in some instances.

At the beginning I took it for granted that this article expressed corruption in the education.
Went on reading it,I regarded my previous thinking was not that true.
However it's also an obvious problem we Chinese didn't become aware of until now,maybe.
Nothing but sigh.

- Just this year, Hunan TV show 勇往直前 was making the grand prize a Hope school paid for by sponsors and awarded in the name of the celebrity guests, so either the bad planning and wasteful spending continues, or the program is seeing success in other areas of the country.

- Hopefully they will divert some of the money to schools for the children of migrant workers in cities on the Eastern coast where, I suppose, the parents of those unborn students are now working and possibly raising their 1 or 2 kids.

At least they achieved their goal of letting every kid study in a classroom even though they paid a big price for that. With China’s slowing birth rate, once crowded schools will see fewer enrollments and finally get merged with bigger and better schools. These schools served their purposes. I wouldn’t consider them a waste of money.

Thanks for this translation, Joel. What is more aggravating in all this educational mess is that mergers and consolidations are happening in minority areas in western China where the number of students have not fallen off. Remote areas that have had centralized small schools - many built through the efforts of foreign embassy development funds - where enrollment is steady are being closed and the children of nomadic and semi-nomadic families are being forced to travel even farther from their homes to go to school. In one of the cases I know of, a local school is being closed and the students moved into a consolidated school in the county seat. The students from this village will now have a two-day trip to get home and two-day trip back to school, and when there is only a five-day block of days a month to travel home it doesn't take a math major to figure this one out. One day home a month. It is no wonder that many people are reluctant to send their kids to school. The children will be essentially raised by the state, and we know where that leads. So much for culture, language, and family. In a nutshell, the "nine year program" has become a cash cow for officials in the countryside, and rolls are being padded in order to get more national funds. This is where we miss the China Development Brief. No one is reporting these stories. The mandatory education policy has made a lot of education officials/policy makers quite wealthy, and they are always on the prowl for more money. Big surprise, huh?

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