A collage of photos mounted on a wall tells a tale of happier times at Changzhou Foreign Languages School (CFLS). The spread of colorful images, taken on a recent school-sponsored orientating trip in nature, shows the smiling faces of the students and parents. Writ large across the top in large red letters: “We Nurture Future Leaders.”
For many parents, such claims ring hollow now in light of recent events at the prestigious school located in the industrial town of Changzhou, Jiangsu province, which is around one hour northwest of Shanghai by high-speed train.
“Changzhou Foreign Languages School used to be our family’s dream school, and we had gone to so much effort to get him admitted,” one student’s mother who asked to be identified by her surname Wu told Sixth Tone. “But now the dream has been shattered.”
The school, which opened its doors at its current campus last September, is located next to the former sites of three chemical factories. This allegedly triggered contamination of the surrounding soil and groundwater, leading to a range of serious illness among pupils, parents say.
After a report on state television on Sunday exposed the crisis nationwide, parents are embroiled in a war of words between them, the school, the municipal government, and local hospitals.
CFLS is no ordinary school and these no ordinary parents. Though some are super wealthy, most are middle-class. They are worldly wise, technologically enabled, and adept at making their case heard. Like parents everywhere, they are united by the strong desire to do all in their power to ensure a good future for their children, including safeguarding their health.
Parents pick up their kids from school as advertisements for ‘xuequfang,’ or school district apartments, hang on the high-rise buildings in the background, Shanghai, Feb. 17, 2014. Yang Yi/Sixth Tone
Sunday's CCTV broadcast said that hundreds of pupils at the school who underwent a health checkup had developed a variety of illnesses including eczema, bronchitis, and headaches. There were reportedly even a few cases of lymphoma and leukemia.
The report claimed that construction work on CFLS had started some seven months before the conclusion of environmental tests conducted on behalf of the education bureau in Changzhou. Those results showed the presence of pollutants in the groundwater and soil at the site and recommended against developing or using groundwater resources, according to media reports.
And while the current media frenzy erupted this week, debate over the safety of the CFLS has been raging for months.
Satellite imagery of the school site and its surroundings taken between 2007 and 2016, shows how the location transformed over the years from an industrial zone that housed multiple chemical plants, to a residential area containing several educational institutions, including CFLS.
CFLS and the local government have issued statements calling into question the CCTV report’s data.
On Wednesday, many parents took their children for fresh examinations at local hospitals. Wu, a soft-spoken 42-year-old dressed casually in a green jacket and jeans, said she also took her son for a checkup Wednesday. She said she was disappointed by the dismissive attitude of doctors there — an experience almost identical to when she took him for a medical examination back in January.
Meanwhile, a number of parents have grouped up on social media to keep each other informed of the still evolving pollution debate as well as the latest developments from the school and the municipal government. From March this year, some parents have even taken to using software tools that help create and share data, news reports, and even photos of their children’s’ rashes. Some of the online pages created by CFLS parents have recorded more than 400,000 clicks on the Chinese social media.
Screenshots of online pages created by CFLS parents.
Wu and her husband had long plotted the future career path of their son, a 14-year old currently enrolled at CFLS. From a young age, they set out to pave the way for his admission, sending him on special educational camps in summer, and striving to cultivate in him a wide range of interests, and encourage him to be a team player. All this, they believed, would enhance his chances for securing a place at a top-notch school like CFLS where admission spots are highly coveted.
Wu still recalls how happy they were when they got the offer from CFLS. “We felt so lucky that our boy could go to this school,” Wu told Sixth Tone. “Even our relatives came to congratulate us when they heard the good news.”
At about 8,500 yuan (more than $1,300) per semester, tuition at the privately-run CFLS is not cheap. Still, compared to more prestigious international schools that can charge fees that are several times higher, CFLS is a relatively affordable option for parents who wish to send their child to a school that promises better prospects than regular state-run schools.
By contrast, per capita disposable income in the Changzhou last year was around 35,000 yuan.
CFLS was founded in 2001. As a junior middle school, its students range in ages between 14 and 16 years old. The previous campus was in the old center of the city, while the new site is in a more recently developed part of town.
On Wednesday evening, the CFLS campus was relatively empty, with just a few students running in the hallways or talking animatedly in the canteen. One first grader, who was filling her thermos with hot water in the corridor, told Sixth Tone that she had heard about the pollution scandal from the media and her parents. Still, she wanted to remain at the school because it would afford her a better chance of gaining entry to a top high school in Changzhou. In China, securing a place at a high-ranked school can facilitate entry into a good university, thus paving the way for a bright future.
The student said that in the months of December and January, the smell on campus had been so bad she had to sometimes use a face mask. In recent months, such odors were “not too bad,” she said.
CFLS is not the only school in China that has faced pollution-related issues in recent months. In the eastern province of Shandong, students at Jinan Licheng Second High School have recently started wearing masks to class because of the distinct smell of sewage discharged from a pharmaceutical company next to the school, according to media reports.
On Tuesday, several parents from Haian County, Jiangsu province told Sixth Tone’s sister publication The Paper that more than 20 primary school students had nosebleeds, itchy skin, and rashes, prompting parents to point the finger at a nearby chemical factory.
For the Wu’s, spending the money on tuition at CFLS appeared to be a worthwhile investment. Their son took to the school immediately. And while like many other Chinese parents, Wu wanted the best for her son’s future, she was drawn to CFLS’s teaching philosophy with its emphasis of creating a happy environment for study. Unlike typical Chinese schools, where students are under immense pressure to complete large amounts of homework assignments or score high grades on examinations, pupils at CFLS are encouraged to develop a wider set of skills and interests.
The Wu family lives 10 minutes from the CFLS campus and have lived in the neighborhood for more than a decade. The school has afforded their son great opportunity. For example, while Wu and her husband cannot speak English, their son can. She said there were many foreigners living in the district, some of whom were employed at foreign owned enterprises nearby. “He has good personality, gets good grades and even can play the guitar,” Wu said of her son.
But now she has decided not to keep the boy at CFLS.
“I said to him, ‘Health is more important than anything,’” she told Sixth Tone, adding that he had been devastated by her decision.
Already she has taken steps to secure a place for him at another school, but educators there asked her to give careful consideration to the situation before making any decision. Even if the transfer goes ahead, it won’t happen until next semester, which begins next fall.
“Even the best public school cannot compare with CFLS,” said Wu. For now, her son stays at home during the day studying. She and other parents have tried to come up with a range of ways to keep their children learning, even proposing at one point to bring a well-known mathematics teacher from the southern city of Guangzhou.
Wu said, in the past, she and her husband fought hard for what was best for her child. Lately, she feels such efforts are in vain, and the future uncertain for a household like hers. “We are not a wealthy family that can afford a 20,000-yuan annual school tuition,” said Wu.
Additional reporting by Cai Yiwen, Peng Wei and Nathan Jubb.
(Header image: A security guard stands at the front gate of Changzhou Foreign Languages School in Jiangsu province, April 18, 2016. Zhou Pinglang/Sixth Tone)