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    As Enrollment Ebbs, Rural Teachers Find Solace in Solidarity

    Falling student enrollment and teacher retention rates pose challenges for rural schools.

    In a rural corner of Sichuan province, a group of school principals crowd around a bulletin board hoping to catch a glimpse of a recently recruited teacher. As a fresh graduate, the young woman is a rare find in the eyes of the principals of isolated rural schools struggling to survive in the face of declining student enrollment.

    “Your school is so lucky to have her,” says Wang Shukun, one of the principals, while other school heads stand nearby, already busy hatching plots to entice the dance teacher to join their schools instead.

    The principals are members of an alliance of teachers — the first of its kind in China — whose purpose is to forge bonds of solidarity between educators in small villages and towns.

    “The aim of the alliance is to give us hope,” said Zhang Pingyuan, the group’s leader and principal of Fanjia Primary School. Zhang formed the alliance in December 2014 out of fear that without it, school principals and teachers in the area might become disillusioned with teaching altogether.

    For rural schools in China, the past decade has been difficult. According to China’s education ministry, the number of school-age children has fallen by 25 percent nationwide compared with a decade ago. Large scale human migration to urban areas has also made it harder for rural schools to retain students.

    In 2002 the Ministry of Education began closing schools in thinly populated areas and moving students to schools closer to towns and cities. The urbanization initiative was scrapped in September 2012, but the subsequent recovery of rural schools has been slower than the government expected. As long as they can afford the extra costs, parents from rural areas typically prefer to place their children in urban schools, where the quality of education is believed to be better.

    As a result of such changes in the landscape of rural education, teachers’ morale around the country, including the area of Sichuan where Zhang lives, has suffered.

    This prompted Zhang and 13 fellow principals to launch the alliance, known in English as the “micro school development alliance.” At its core, the alliance aims to build morale among teachers in rural schools. By linking educators together in a family-like environment, the alliance affords them the opportunity to hone their teaching skills by using new methods specially tailored to small classes, by sharing their experiences in the classroom, and by forming social ties with similarly motivated colleagues.

    The alliance covers 14 schools and more than 220 teachers in the Lizhou District of Guangyuan City, around 300 kilometers northeast of the provincial capital of Chengdu.

    Tucked away in a valley that hundreds of villagers call home, Fanjia Primary School is 17 kilometers of spiraling hillside road from the nearest town of Baolun, with another 13 kilometers of highway separating Baolun from the prefecture-level city of Guangyuan. The livelihoods of the villagers who live near the school is limited to farming, with local tourist spots providing job opportunities only in the summer. Most of the villagers make a living as migrant workers in distant cities.

    Fanjia Primary School was designed to accommodate more than 200 students across six grades, and it consists of a couple of three-story buildings joined in an “L” shape and complete with a playground and a cafeteria. When Zhang first came to the school in the summer of 2014, it had a total enrollment of 54 students. But when the new term started in September 2015, that number had shrunk to 47.

    Shilong Primary School principal Zhao Chengbao, 43, had previously visited all other rural schools in Lizhou District by motorcycle. His mission was to forge closer links between schools facing the same problems. “For most of the schools, the focus was on survival rather than on development,” he said. So when Zhang proposed his alliance, Zhao responded to the call immediately. Today he is one of the most active members of the alliance, serving as its vice president.

    Zhang’s alliance of teachers is also helping rural schools pool their resources. For example, when examination time comes, schools collaborate by compiling tests and sharing them among alliance members. The schools also hold regular monthly meetings to discuss the alliance’s progress.

    Zhang’s latest plan is to register the alliance as a formal organization with the local business authority. This would make the alliance eligible to receive donations from the public, thereby reducing its dependence on government funding.

    Yang Dongping, director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, a prominent education think tank, said that among the measures to improve rural schools, self-help is an important part. Teachers should collaborate with one another to solve the problems they have, he said.  

    Chief among the challenges principals of alliance schools face is recruiting and retaining a team of competent teachers. According to the alliance, nearly half of its teachers at the 14 member schools will retire within five years. Zhao Jun, the 42-year-old principal of the alliance’s Jingtian Primary School, said the majority of the teachers at his school — where 37 students are enrolled — are in their 50s. “Compared to urban schools, the burden to maintain a teaching staff of suitable age range and qualifications is heavier at rural schools,” said Zhao Jun.

    Retaining younger teachers in rural areas has proven to be particularly challenging. In the absence of good career prospects or a vibrant teaching environment, “some young teachers would simply resign and leave,” said the alliance’s Zhao Chengbao. He can only hope that the camaraderie and support offered by the alliance are enough to attract a new generation of educators who are willing make education in rural areas a top priority.

    (Header image: A student writes at her desk while a classmate stands next to her, at Jingtian Primary School in Guangyuan, Sichuan province, Dec. 29, 2015. Cheng Yihui/Sixth Tone)