Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Opportunity at 9,000 Feet: Young Teachers Reach China's Remotest Poor

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Opportunity at 9,000 Feet: Young Teachers Reach China's Remotest Poor

Article excerpt

Not long ago, Guo Dekai would likely have been playing in the dirt by the side of the road with other five-year-olds, unkempt and unsupervised.

There was no preschool in this remote mountain village in western China, and every day, Dekai would have fallen a little further behind his city-born peers, his prospects a little more limited.

Instead, he is sitting in a tiny blue plastic chair alongside two other kindergarten pupils, carefully considering which felt pen to use as he colors a drawing of a cat.

The program he is in - an innovative effort to put even the poorest children in the most isolated villages through preschool - will set him up for primary school and, perhaps, a brighter future.

"There are very few kids here, so they are not as confident as city kids who grow up with a lot of classmates," says Dekai's teacher, Qin Haixiong. "But their skills are just the same."

Across China, now that early education is a new government priority, a spending drive means private and government-run kindergartens take care of about 70 percent of preschool-age children.

But Chengbeihou and villages like it are 9,000 feet up in the mountains of Qinghai province, several hours' drive from the nearest town. They are beyond the reach of the government preschool network, and no private school would bother with them; the peasant farmers who live here raise meager crops of barley and potatoes and are too poor to pay fees.

Closing the gap with citiesAbout 16 million Chinese youngsters between the ages of 3 and 6 are not enrolled in kindergarten. "And these are not rich kids who have babysitters," says Lu Mai, head of the China Development Research Foundation, a Beijing-based think- and-do tank. Rather, they live in China's most distant, hardscrabble villages.

The foundation, a government-linked group funded largely by foreign and Chinese corporations, is behind the Village Early Education Centers (VEECs), a pilot plan that Dekai and about 25,000 other children benefit from.

The project is deliberately aimed at the poorest 20 percent of Chinese children because "lack of access to preschools in remote villages further widens the existing gap in ... school readiness between poverty regions and peri-urban and urban areas," says a 2015 progress report on the seven-year-old effort.

In a bid to level the playing field for China's youngest students, "we started this work from an equity perspective," adds Mr. Lu. And in making its plans the foundation drew on such diverse sources as the US Head Start program and the barefoot doctors and horseback teachers of China's Maoist era.

One key goal of the VEECs was that they should be free. To keep costs down, they have been set up in disused primary schools that have emptied of children as more and more peasant families have joined the rural exodus in search of city jobs. …

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