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Hope School Provides a Ray of Hope
Despite the freezing winds outside and lack of central heating inside, a 30-square-meter classroom at Sanyuanli Primary School was warm as it was tightly packed with 109 students and their teacher.

The children, every five of them sharing a 1-meter-long shabby desk, shout out in unison as the teacher points to Chinese characters she has written on a cracked blackboard.

This primary school is located in Kaole Township in the Dongxiang Autonomous County in Northwest China's Gansu Province, one of the poorest in the province.

With seven classrooms, the school is in an old one-story building with uneven walls. There are 10 teachers for 455 children in five grades.

Over 150 new students were enrolled this year, said school headmaster Ma Zhanying. But despite the overcrowded conditions, he is happy to see that more and more families in this destitute area send their children to learn.

Finding space for the new students has been difficult, Ma said.

"We have already turned a meeting room for teachers into a classroom for Grade Five," he said. "But we still don't have enough money to buy desks and chairs for every student, let alone build new classrooms."

The Sanyuanli School and hundreds like it in the county are a ray of hope for families of the Muslim Dongxiang people, one of China's 56 ethnic groups.

Seeing the urgent need to help schools like Sanyuanli, last month China Daily and the China Youth Development Foundation teamed up to form a charity called "Caring for dropouts; Donate to a Hope School" to help local people.

Donations are collected either to build a new school or enlarge an existing school to ease crowded conditions such as at Sanyuanli.

"About 200,000 yuan (US$24,180) can help enlarge and furnish one existing school and 300,000 yuan (US$36,400) can help build a new one," said Xue Chaohua, a staff member at China Daily, who has visited and investigated more than 20 local primary schools over one-and-a half months this year.

Dongxiang County has a population of 257,800, most of whom make a living by growing wheat and potatoes and herding sheep. With an annual per capita income of 776 yuan (US$93.5), the county has also suffered from a continuous drought for many years.

Many families use rainwater, collected as it flows off their roofs, for drinking water for themselves and their livestock.

Those who live where it rarely rains often have to travel over 10 kilometers every day to collect water, which they carry back to their villages on a donkey or on their own backs.

"The shortage of water has blocked Dongxiang's agricultural and industrial development," said Qi Xiufang, the vice-magistrate of the county.

Farmers are concerned that their children won't receive proper education.

"My oldest son will be six years old next year and I don't know where I can get the money to send him to school," said a local farmer in his 40s, with the surname Tuo, who has three children.

Tuo lives in Chitan Village in Fengling Township. His annual harvest is barely enough to feed his family.

"Among the 50 families I visited in Kaole Township, 49 said they wanted to send their children to school," said China Daily's Xue. "But most of them cannot afford fees for textbooks and expenses, even though they only amount to 45 yuan (US$5.46) for one term."

Because school costs are hard to meet, many children only receive five years of primary school training or drop out of school.

Xue also found that 21 out of the 50 families in that area didn't want to send their daughters to school.

"Girls usually learn the Koran in nearby mosques for two or three years and then return home to help on the farm or with household chores and wait for marriage," he said. "Most of villages are hidden away in remote mountains and it's unsafe for a young child to walk 10 kilometers to school every day. They also can't afford the expenses of having their children board at the school."

In Wangjianao Village in Fengling Township, all the 20 school-age children from the 17 families cannot go to school because the nearest is 20 kilometers away. It would take about two hours for the children to get there.

"Under such harsh natural conditions, education is a key element in the fight to eradicate poverty, and it is the part where we can help most," Xue said.

China Daily is working with Dongxiang county, following a campaign launched by the central government calling for public assistance in the battle against poverty in poor counties since 1998.

Its aid has helped establish the China Daily Hope School which opened in 2000 with nearly 500,000 yuan (US$60,000) in donations from employees at China Daily and the Gansu Association for Disabled People and local people.

The school has proved to be a great success and has attracted 386 students from four villages. About 95 percent of the area's school-age children are now receiving education compared with 1998's figure of only 47 percent.

Moreover, previously there were only four girls at the school, and now there are 83.

"Thanks to China Daily and all the other people, we can sit in such bright classroom and study," said Ma Yan, 11, who is in Grade Five and is preparing for the entrance exam into middle school.

The China Daily Hope School is located in Yanling, only half an hour away from the county seat. Residents in Yanling are slightly better off than residents who live in deep ravines, Xue said.

"New donations will be used to assist or build schools in much poorer townships like those around the Sanyuanli Primary School," Xue said.

"If you could see those students sitting and squatting on the ground practicing writing and reading books, or the teachers who live in rundown buildings with holes in the ceilings, or the tiny and thin figures carrying little bags as they disappear among the huge mountains, you wouldn't hesitate to help them."

(China Daily December 13, 2002)

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