Since China’s economic reforms began, a growing number of its rural population have chosen to migrate to urban areas for better economic opportunities. Many social problems have emerged from this. More and more attention is being directed towards both “left-behind children” (those who do not travel with their parents to urban areas) and “migrant children” (those who do travel with their parents to urban areas). However little has been said about the millions of rural children who spend much of their childhood in boarding schools.
A bittersweet boarding experience
After the State Council addressed boarding schools in it’s “CPC Central Committee and State Council Decision on Deepening the Reform of the Comprehensive Promotion of Quality Education”, rural boarding schools have been undergoing a period of development, especially in the Western part of China. In a decade-long initiative, 370,000 under-performing schools were closed. However the number of elementary-level boarding school students rose to 32,760,000, of which 60% are “left-behind children”. 45% of the boarding schools have underage students in their first or second grade. 50% of boarding school students share beds. The average height of boarding school students is 6-8 cm lower than the average. 47.3% of students are haunted by depression and 63.8% experienced loneliness.
Those statistics were published in January 2015 in a report called the China Rural Boarding Students Report by an NGO called Growing Home (歌路营) ((Growing Home is an education-focused Chinese NGO that was established in 2008. See here for more details (Chinese))). By researching and surveying hundreds of schools in Hebei, Sichuan, Hunan and Yunnan, the report reflects the current situation and highlights contemporary problems with rural boarding schools. Growing Home has focused on problems facing rural boarding school students since 2012 when it announced it’s “New 1001 Nights: Bedtime Stories for Rural Boarding School Students” program. The program aims to improve students’ psychical and mental health, sense of belonging, relationships with other students, reading level, and general knowledge by telling stories to the boarding students before they go to bed.
1001 bedtime stories
The staff at Growing Home were inspired to implement this project after learning of a project called the “Late Show”, where volunteers read bedtime stories to juvenile offenders in Contra Costa County, California ((See here for an LA Times article about the Late Show program: http://articles.latimes.com/1993-01-28/news/mn-2363_1_contra-costa-county-juvenile-hall)) . The Late Show project was created by Betty Frandsen and aims to reduce violent behavior and improve their sense of belonging. Inspired by this, Growing Home conducted further research on the idea. They discovered bedtime stories are helpful in healing children, exposing them to new ideas, and stimulating creativity, concentration, and character-building. As a result, the staff at Growing Home worked out that they could read stories to boarding school students in the fifteen minutes before they went to sleep. With this the “New 1001 Nights” program was born.
Implementing the program was easy. They installed small speakers in every dorm, connecting them to the existing sound system and school computers. When teachers hit the play button, the students could go to sleep accompanied by bedtime stories. An easy model like this not only fulfilled the needs of the children, but also lessened the pressure on teachers assigned to nighttime duties.
However, although the program design was simple, the production of the stories was complicated. Growing Home aimed to produce stories that covered the needs of children with different ages, gender and personal preferences. They came up with a classification system that divided stories up into seven types: character building, growing & healing, knowledge & horizon, adventure, biographies, campus life and fairy tales. Each of the stories are chosen by a group of professional children’s book editors and the teachers themselves. They developed the stories from published books, magazines, news and the internet. They then edited the stories to fit the needs of children. Broadcasters from China National Radio and the Beijing Media Network, students and teachers from the Communication University of China, and professional broadcasters in Xi’an and Anhui would then read and record the stories. After a final editing, the staff from Growing Home would then categorize the stories and send them to rural boarding schools across China.
More than just stories
As of November 2014, the “New 1001 Nights” program has been implemented in 336 schools in 16 provinces across China. Over 70,000 rural boarding students now enjoy listening to bedtime stories while going to sleep. The program has received positive feedbacks from both children and teachers. Growing Home is also looking for ways to improve the project by assessing and evaluating the results. From April 2013 to April 2014, Growing Home tracked 235 boarding students from two schools in Chongqing. Using both quantitative and qualitative assessments with control groups, they explored the effects of the bedtime stories.
The result suggests that 97.1% of the students enjoyed the stories. 92.8% of the students developed a favorite story genre. 79.7% of them now enjoy dormitory life, which represents a 56.6% rise from last year. 88.4% developed an interest in reading, which is a 65.2% rise from before. 68.5% of non-boarding students at the schools also heard stories told by boarding students, which helped to improve both student relationships and speaking skills. 44% of the children had used elements from the stories in their schoolwork and students’ written skills were reported to have risen significantly. Meanwhile those who were writing with “negative sentiments” declined by 12%.
These statistics suggest a positive correlation between the “New 1001 Nights” program and students’ life in their dormitory, relationships, and behavior. They were more likely to read and share the stories they heard. The stories also helped their writing skills and enriched their writing materials. For many, listening to the stories become the most enjoyable event on campus. In the past, some students messed around before going to bed. Now they automatically went to bed to wait for the stories to play. This significantly lessened the workload of the teachers!
Professional attitudes, professional work
When one browses Growing Home’s website, looking through their reports or listening to their teachers, he or she will find that all the programs initiated by Growing Home, including the “New 1001 Nights”, have something in common. Firstly, the logical structure of the programs are very clear. Secondly, they are good at expressing their points using statistics. These two features can be found throughout the entire process of all the programs. From researching and analysis the topic, to the execution and cost-assessment and evaluation.
According to Du Shuang, the general secretary of Growing Home, they did not possess such a methodology from the start. Since many of the members in their organization have an education or psychology background, when they began to pitch their programs, audiences were confused by their academic jargon and dense research. They gradually realized that a simple, clearer method, combined with professionalism, worked better for publicity and fundraising.
Benefiting from their members’ strong professional background, Growing Home developed effective “learning and reflecting” curves. They exact core ideas when listening to feedback from businesses, foundations, and associates. During this process, they learned that statistics can speak for themselves. It also fits with their “research and action combined” strategy. As a result, during the entire course of all their programs Growing Home concentrates heavily on data collection and analysis.
Having this clear logical structure combined with powerful statistical support greatly helped Growing Home with their crowdfunding. In May 2014, Growing Home partnered with the China Charities Aid Foundation for Children and qualified for united charity fundraising (公众联合劝募资质). In the same month, Growing Home joined with other professional education services to hold their first charity night walk. By recruiting 15 teams and walking 25 km at night in Beijing, they raised money for students in 15 schools in Sichuan, giving them all new opportunities to enjoy bedtime stories. On December 2014, they partnered with the One Way Street Bookstore and launched the “New Year Book Relay” which encouraged the public to buy books as New Year gifts. All the profits from selling the books went directly to the “New 1001 Night” program.
Fundraising events such as this changed the “appeal to sadness” strategy often used by charities. Instead they mobilized the public’s desire to participate. The “New Year Book Relay” went viral on Weibo and Wechat, along with support from celebrities in different fields. Besides being successful fundraising, Growing Home and its program were also introduced to the public via this channel. Concordantly the issues that they dealt with – including those facing rural boarding students – also gained valuable publicity.
Helping rural boarding students to grow
Although the “New 1001 Nights” program had a significant positive result, the power of one organization is not enough to cope with the needs of the huge rural boarding students population. Du Shuang and her team are always concerned with the many children that are not yet covered by the the program. They are constantly exploring ways to improve how to benefit more children and change their dormitory lives from the bottom-up.
In the future Growing Home aims to extend the “New 1001 Nights” program to more schools. As the scale and influence of the program has grown bigger, staff from Growing Home have found that many education departments at the municipal level have taken the initiative to contact them to prepare to implement the program in their areas. Support from government agencies has greatly helped the introduction, execution, and spread of the program. More importantly, government has started to realize the current situation and dilemma of boarding students and exhibited willingness to work with NGOs. In 2015 Growing Home is expecting more co-operation and communication with more government agencies.
Moreover, the China Rural Boarding Students Report produced in January 2015 is also a useful resource for Growing Home. Before the report was published there was no comprehensive research conducted on rural boarding schools. The Report received wide attention from both media and the public. In just half a month, the number of online searches being conducted to find the report rose to 167,000 and hundreds of news articles were published. Major media outlets including Xinhua, Renmin, iFeng, Sina and Tencent all published related news, sparking online discussion.
Du Shuang suggest that after being published in both the Guangming Daily and the People’s Congress Daily, the Report reached many readers who worked in the Ministry of Education and those at higher government levels. Du Shuang has already received good feedback and hopes that government officials can better understand the issues facing rural boarding students situation by reading the report.
Meanwhile, Growing Home also hopes that more professional education services can also conduct research into the huge community of rural boarding students. These assessments would allow the re-evaluation of current policies that cover rural schools.
As a civil society organization, Growing Home does not have the capacity to solve all the problems facing rural boarding students. While constantly exploring new options, Growing Home hopes that government agencies, schools, parents, NGOs and the public will join forces and pay closer attention to the issue, so that in the future all Chinese children will enjoy equal education opportunities and a happy childhood.
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