Contrasts in Xi’an
Innovation Academy Middle School Principal Melissa Kapeckas is in China! She is traveling as part of a delegation of Massachusetts school leaders participating in the US-China Administrator shadowing project. She will spend one week traveling and meeting with education officials before spending another week shadowing Principal Pei Yaolin at the Handan No. 31 Middle School. Check back throughout the month of April to read her posts.
I have read that China is a country of contrasts and that was clearly illustrated today. Xi’an is a bustling city of 8 million people. Only 20 years ago, there were no private cars on the road. It is difficult to believe how quickly this transformation happened given the current steady stream of honks and the need to play “Frogger” and say a prayer when crossing the street. Amidst cultural treasures of the Ming Dynasty, the streets are a steady stream of construction and commerce, including familiar brands such as the Apple Store, McDonald’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. It is more expensive per square meter to buy an apartment here than in New York City.
Just a 50 minute drive from the heart of the city lies Pangliu Village. Life here has changed drastically, too, but on a different scale. Our first stop was at the largest employer in town- the local brick “factory”. This “factory” was outdoors next to the clay soil hillside. Clay was mixed with water on a conveyer belt powered by a coal fire to create wet bricks. These handmade bricks were laid out row by row to harden in the sun. The employees work every day it is not raining and are paid by how many bricks they make, an average of $250/month.
Our next step was the Pangliu Village School, a 1-6 school where 110 of the village children go to school. By Chinese standards, this is a very small school. At the end of elementary school and middle school in China, children take an exam to determine their placement in secondary school. The highest scoring students are placed in the best schools, known as the key schools. Additionally, there is an entrance exam for college. If students do not pass the entrance exam, there is not a second opportunity to take the exam. They are denied entrance to college and must enter the workforce.
Funding for schools is determined by the government and more funding flows to key schools. Additionally, a culture of corruption has arisen with key middle schools unofficially charging high-fee scales for entrance. This might result in payment of up to 50,000 yuan (US $6040). Beyond this corruption, the result is an achievement gap, with rural schools having significantly less access to resources.
Despite this, times are changing for this village as well. Single family homes offer much more space for families than in the city and most homes in this village have been rebuilt in recent years with more amenities. Only twenty years ago, there were really only 2 ways to achieve a work permit to leave the village: entering the military or being a top student. Those restrictions have been lifted and now there is a large migration of young people leaving the countryside for the economic opportunities the city can provide.