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The Wealth of Education
Project Hope schools provide the spark that gives impoverished children a new life
By Xia Yuanyuan | VOL.11 November ·2019-11-04

Students in Jinzhai County Hope Primary School pose for the camera (SHI GANG)

If it were not for a donation from Project Hope, the largest charitable organization for education in China, Su Mingjuan, a poor farmer's daughter, would have seen her dream of attending college go up in smoke.

In 1991, a photo of then 8-year-old Su, who hails from Jinzhai County in east China's Anhui Province, with big sparkling eyes and a pencil in her hand, touched the hearts of millions of Chinese people. It was obvious from the image that the young girl represented the hopes of all children from poverty-stricken families who dreamed of receiving education but couldn't afford it.

With the help of Project Hope, Su got the chance to continue her education and in 2003 she passed the national college entrance examination and entered Anhui University. Today she works at the Anhui Branch of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China.

"Without the aid of Project Hope, my life would be completely different. It has changed my fate along with assisting millions of other poor families," said Su.

In her hometown, China's first Hope Primary School, Jinzhai County Hope Primary School, which marked the formal inception of China's Project Hope aimed at helping dropouts return to school, was set up on May 19, 1990. Over the past 29 years, more than 1,000 students at the school received donations from Project Hope, almost 20 percent of those who graduated from the school.

Reversing a trend

Liao Guilin, Vice Principal of Jinzhai County Hope Primary School, could still remember the appearance of the school nearly 30 years ago. Back then, there was no campus or classroom. The school was a temporary make-shift structure in a shabby ancestral hall in Jinzhai's Tangjiahui.

"The hall was decrepit, with walls made of mud, thatched grass, broken windows and collapsed desks and stools," Liao told ChinAfrica.

In addition to the poor teaching environment and facilities, the bigger problem faced by students at the time was that they were too poor to go to school. According to Liao, many local farmers could not afford tuition fees.

Located in a mountainous area where the boundaries of Anhui, Henan and Hubei provinces meet, Jinzhai, because of its remote location and poor transportation links, was trapped in a cocoon of poverty in the 1990s. As a result, the county was faced with a serious school dropout problem.

Project Hope was launched to reverse that rising trend countrywide. In 1985, Li Keqiang, who was then member of the Central Committee Secretariat of the Communist Youth League, chose the site for Jinzhai County Hope Primary School. It was the first primary school donated by Project Hope in the county, which opened in 1991.

Bird's-eye view of Jinzhai County Hope Primary School in east China's Anhui Province (COURTESY PHOTO)

Improved education

As the very first beneficiary of Project Hope, Jinzhai County Hope Primary School has gained extensive support and substantial help from people from all walks of life during the past 28 years, and its teaching environment and quality of educational equipment have been remarkably improved.

When construction of the Hope Primary School was completed, about 300 students were absorbed from the original primary school. Today, the school covers some 14,200 square meters. Almost 50 teachers and 900 students occupy a modern five-story building, featuring classrooms with high-tech multimedia equipment, and a big playground. As China's economy has developed rapidly over the past 40 years, the Central Government has increased investment in elementary education to ensure that compulsory education is free to all. This fact, along with donations from millions of people at home and abroad, means far fewer children are dropping out of school because of poverty.

Now that Jinzhai County Primary School dropout issue is no longer a problem, the mission of the school has therefore changed.

"At the beginning, helping dropouts return to schools was our original intention," Liao told ChinAfrica. "Now, our aim is to provide better education to students."

The school has subsequently made a lot of effort to improve teaching methods and teaching quality so as to narrow the quality gap of education with its urban area counterparts. Apart from main courses, the school instituted a lot of extracurricular activities such as art, music, sports, science, calligraphy, painting, chess and guitar.

In addition, with the support from the Nutrition Improvement Program started in 2011 by the Chinese Government, students in Jinzhai County Hope Primary School no longer have any health problems.

Knowledge is wealth

In ancient China, education was the only way out of poverty, which is mirrored in recent times.

For Jinzhai, the mission of the Hope Primary School is not only solving education problems, but also helping shake off poverty at the root.

"Families that live in extreme poverty often see school as an impossible cost, which is what creates a never-ending cycle: Poor people who grow up without education are less likely to send their own children to school, which means the children remain trapped in poverty when they grow up because they are uneducated," Liao told ChinAfrica. "Education can break the cycle of poverty."

This is illustrated by China's multi-dimensional poverty reduction system, with education being one of the pillars. The government addresses poverty problem by enhancing the skills of impoverished population and improving their capacity of independent development, and acts to prevent the transfer of poverty across generations.

Highlighting education as a key factor in poverty-relief work, Chinese President Xi Jinping said, "Making sure children of impoverished families enjoy access to high-quality education is a fundamental solution to poverty."

For China, the 20,110 Hope Primary Schools not only play a vital role in improving the overall quality of education, but also facilitate the country to win the war against poverty and improve people's livelihoods, said Liao.

(Comments to xyy@chinafrica.cn)

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