What high school costs

For this year, Cool Mountain was only able to give 600 yuan (about $95) scholarships to our Yangjuan Primary School graduates who are in schools like Minzhong, the Nationalities Middle School in Yanyuan. When we visited in March, we found out from some of the students just how much it actually costs.

  • Yearly school fees are 3300 yuan, including tuition, room and board, and books.
  • Food, purchased by swiping their card at the school dining hall, is the most expensive item. Boys estimate that it costs them about 20 yuan per day, 30 days a month, 10 months a year, for a total of about 6000 yuan. Girls eat less, and might be able to get by for 4500-5000. But if food prices continue to rise in China, this will place an even greater strain on families.
  • School supplies, trips home for vacation, and other miscellaneous expenses probably run 800-900 per year
  • .

Add this up, and it comes to around 8500-9500 per year. The school gives them an allowance 150 yuan per month added to their card, which brings down the total net cost to around 7000-8000.

This places a huge strain on most families. Even those with a fairly high income of 20,000 or so are spending a third of what they make on the education of just one child, and others are spending a higher proportion.

Families’ dedication to education for their children is impressive. We hope Cool Mountain can help out more next year.

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Teaching High School English

On March 26, my research partner Aga Ssyhxamo and I had the chance to visit the  Nationalities Middle School in the Yanyuan County Town, where some of the best Yangjuan graduates are continuing their education. It is a huge school on the edge of town, with 3600 students mostly living in dormitories at the school.  We were able to talk for about an hour to twelve students from Yangjuan Primary School, six girls in the 11th grade and six boys in the 12th.

Students at Minzhong, as the school is informally known, have a rigorous schedule and a competitive education worthy of China’s exam-based school system.  The 12th graders, preparing for the college entrance exam in June, work particularly hard, with classes Monday through Friday from 7:00-12:00, from 2:00 to 5:30, and from 7:00 to 11:00 in the evening, and then from 7:00 to 12:00 and 2:00-5:30 on Saturday, with only Saturday evening and Sunday off.  11th graders have it “easier,” with their evening classes only going until 10:00, and no classes on Saturday.  They take Chinese, mathematics, English, physics, chemistry, and biology, in addition to classes on politics and Mao’s thought.  They have only one 40-minute P.E. class per week, even though national regulations mandate three.  It’s not on the test…

Students in Chinese high schools are all members of something called a ban, a class of students with whom they take all their subjects together. They don’t move around from class to class like American students do. And which ban they are in is also a matter of competition. There are ten ban, in each grade at Minzhong, with about 80-100 students in each. There are seven ordinary ban and three “key point” ban, which students have to test into at the beginning of the year. Among the key point ban is one called the “scientific internet ban,” which is taught simultaneously by a local teacher and by a teacher from one of the best high schools in the provincial capital of Chengdu, who appears on live video. Of the students we talked to, one of the twelfth-grade boys and one of the 11th-grade girls are in the internet ban, while two of the twelfth-grade boys and three of the 11th-grade girls are in the key point ban.

Teaching English pronunciation while the volume is turned down on the teacher in Chengdu

I had a chance to see the 11th-grade internet banin action when I offered to go over the lesson with them in their English class. In my honor, they turned down the volume on the Chengdu teacher after I argued that my English pronunciation was probably even better than theirs. The lesson was about the recent chief executive election in Hong Kong. I stressed pronunciation, of course, and most of the students were pretty good at it, though like most Chinese speakers, they had trouble with final consonants. I was also able to have a short dialogue with a boy in the back, who give pretty good answers to simple questions.



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Yangjuan Graduates in College II

March 21, I continued the adventure of meeting the young men and women from Yangjuan Primary School who have started college this year.  There are three of them at Xichang College in Xichang, the prefectural capital of Liangshan (Cool Mountain) Yi Autonomous Prefecture.


Li Ajia is the son of Yangjuan farmer and storekeeper Hxisee Gogo.  He is the third of three brothers; the other two are married and live in Yangjuan; his middle brother Li Hua drives a minivan taxi.  Ajia is in a special preparatory class designed for minority students who didn’t make the grade on the College Entrance Exam the first time around, but get another chance this year; they take classes in the basic topics of Chinese, Math, English, Physics, Chemistry, and Biology, and on May 26 they will have another exam, which will determine what kind of college they can get into as regular students starting this fall.  Of the 90 students in the class, 30 will be able to get into four-year degree programs, while the others will have to settle for three-year degrees.  Ajia tested 22nd of the ninety students in this year’s class, so he has a good chance at a four year degree.



Mgebbu Jiajiamo, who also goes by her Han name Zhao Tianmei, is also in the prep class.  When she was in the second grade, Cool Mountain board member Professor Li Xingxing met her in Yangjuan, and found out that her family was very poor, and everyone considered her to be very smart, so he adopted her as a “dry daughter,” a common relationship in China something like a godparent-godchild relationship in Euro-American culture.  Professor Li supports her education, so she does not receive help from Cool Mountain, but we all consider her one of ours.  She tested 11th in the fall semester, which meant she received a 3rd prize of 150 yuan for her good scores. Whether she continues to a four-year or a three-year program, she wants to be a schoolteacher when she finishes.



Ma Xiaolan is familiar to readers of this blog; she is the first Yangjuan graduate to go directly to a four-year degree.  She is studying mathematics education, and likes it very much; she definitely wants to be a teacher.  In order to stay eligible for an education degree, she has to pass several “gates,” and the first one, day after tomorrow, is in standard Mandarin pronunciation and grammar.  A friend and I spent several hours talking with her today, and we think she will have no problem; her Mandarin is near perfect.  She’s more afraid of the English exam, since she didn’t get very good English instruction in elementary or secondary school.  But Xiaolan is doing extraordinarily well; she tested 3rd out of 42 students in her class in the fall semester. I was really impressed with Xiaolan this year.  She talked to me and Aga Ssehxamo, an education Ph. D student, for about four hours today, and offered insightful comments on a variety of subjects, which I thought indicated a maturity beyond her tender years.

Our support is extremely important for Xiaolan, because her family is poor.  I talked to her father during a ritual on a hillside above Yangjuan.  He was a sheepherder until this year, but he sold all his sheep to pay for her college education and in anticipation that  her little brother, now in his final year of high school, will go to college this fall. He also spent several months in the mountains of Aba Tibetan and Qiang Prefecture, building roads to help build up his college fund.  As soon as he’s finished planting his corn, he hopes to find another heavy labor job to bring in more money for his family. Xichang College does not give scholarships to poor students unless they are orphans, and although the expenses are a little bit less than those at Meishan where we visited on the 20th (about 10,000 per year total), her family would have had little hope of supporting Xiaolan and saving enough for her brother if it were not for our scholarship, which was funded by a generous gift from Professor Beverly Bossler of UC Davis.

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Yangjuan graduates in college

Today CMEF board member Li Xingxing and I drove to Meishan, a city about 60 kilometers south of Chengdu, to visit two graduates from Yangjuan School, Yang Ayang and Shen Zhuobu, who enrolled this year as freshmen in Meishan Vocational and Technical College.  This is a new, three-year school on a hillside outside Meishan, home town of the famous Song dyansty poet Su Shi, also called Su Dongpo.  Most of the students at the college come from minority backgrounds; about a third are Yi and another third are Tibetan.

We asked about the students’ expenses at college, and they turned out to be more than we thought.  They have about 5000 to 7000 yuan a year in various fees, including 2400 for tuition and books, and 1500 to stay in the dormitories, where students live six to a room in bunk beds.  They do have internet access in the dorms (for 2.5 yuan per hour), and everyone, even the poorest, seems to have a cell phone; that way they can communicate with former classmates in distant colleges, and of course also with their parents.  The students’ biggest expense is for food.  Some girls we met claimed that they could get by on 15 yuan per day, but the boys all spend 20 or more.

Ayang’s family is very poor, and there is no way they could afford the 11,000 yuan or more for a year’s total expenses.  Our 2000 yuan scholarship was joined by 3000 from the College’s fund for its poorest students, and they also borrowed another 3000 from relatives.  Perhaps next year, if our donors continue to be generous, we’ll be able to give a little more help to this promising future teacher with the big smile.

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Heading for Liangshan

In a week, I will be back in Liangshan, and I will probably arrive in Yangjuan on Friday, the 23rd.  On the 24th, there is supposed to be an oath-taking ritual in the sacred Keteleeria grove at the foot of Black Mountain above Yangjuan, and I’m hoping to film that with a cute little video gizmo I borrowed from our eager archaeology graduate assistant at UW.  And of course there will be old friends to see all over Sichuan and beyond.

But the main reason I’m going this time is to investigate in detail three things connected with Yangjuan Primary School.  The first thing is simply to observe what is going on at the school itself.  Facing a continual dearth of state-credentialed and state-salaried teachers, how is the school coping?  How did students do on their mid-year examinations?  How has teaching changed since the last time I observed classes in 2009?  What does the school need to continue to serve its mission?  How does it compare with other local schools?

The second thing I’m curious about  is how our college scholarship recipients are doing.  They are scattered in five cities all over Sichuan (Xichang, Chengdu, Guang’an, Meishan, and Dujiangyan) in three-year and four-year majors ranging from Chinese language to hydraulic project engineering.  I’m going to try to visit as many of them as possible, both to observe their situations and to talk to them about their responsibilities as scholarship recipients and as community members to give back something to their communities after they graduate. I’ll also try to take pictures and maybe make some brief video recordings to post on this blog.

The second thing I want to investigate is the state of bilingual education.  From the 1980s through the late 1990s Nuosu educators made a tremendous effort to provide education in the Nuosu or Yi language alongside education in Chinese.  They were afraid that if they didn’t do this, the all the rich cultural resources embedded in that language and script would eventually be lost.  They wrote textbooks, trained teachers, and established curricula in elementary and secondary schools.  Yangjuan has always had a few Yi-language classes, and many of our graduates continued to study Nuosu writing in middle and high school.  But recently, the enthusiasm for bilingual education seems to have dimmed, in light of the increasing trend of Nuosu people to take jobs in the wider Chinese world, where knowing how to write Nuosu is not very useful.  I want to observe classes at Yangjuan and elsewhere, and talk to teachers, principals, and educational officials about the current state and future plans for bilingual education.  Will employability and ability to do well in China’s mainstream society take precedence over cultural preservation?  Can they both happen at once?  How does bilingual education affect children’s scores on the all-important tests that determine their admission to high schools and colleges.

I’m not sure when the next time will be that I can get online to blog about my travels and observations; I might have to wait until I leave Liangshan and get easy internet access again.  But I’ll try to provide a visual and textual feast for those who are interested in our work.  Be looking for more posts in April.



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Girls in School and College

I promised a couple of weeks ago that I would post my thoughts on gender and education.  Sorry for the delay, but herewith:

It’s an article of faith in the development world, from Nick Kristof at the New York Times to obscure conferences of professionals, that educating girls is one of the most important things that can be done in working with communities toward sustainable development and growth.  The reasons are legion, and they are real.  First is the simple matter of gender justice: girls and women deserve equal rights and opportunities with boys and men.  But in addition, educating girls is thought to have multiplier effects that help communities as a whole.  Women almost everywhere take the lead role in caring for and educating children, and if mothers are educated, this gives their children, both boys and girls, advantages in their own education.  Women are more concerned with children’s health, and educated women are more able to take care of their children’s health needs.  And since women bear the main burdens of childcare, including not just direct care but the housework that increases with each child, women typically want fewer children than their husbands, and educated women are more likely to be able to achieve ideal, smaller family sizes, which contributes to controlling world population growth.

What’s do dislike about this?  Nothing, really, but it’s often easier said than done in many traditional communities.  Outsiders like us CMEF folk are committed to working with communities, not against them, and communities like the Nuosu villages we work in are male-dominated and male-centered. Women mostly live with or near their husbands’ families, which often means living far from their own. Women, objectively, do a lot more work than men, as Joanne showed in a paper she wrote in 2005.  And almost all traditional community leaders are men. So it was no surprise that when we founded Yangjuan Primary School in 2000, 92% of the school-age boys, but only 74% of the school-age girls attended the school.  And we have seen an imbalance in many of the graduating classes, starting with the first class, where girls comprised only 14 of 34 graduates in 2005, only three of the fifteen students who passed the college entrance exam this year.

But the situation has never been completely bleak.  In traditional Nuosu culture and folklore, even though most leadership roles were defined as male, exceptional women could take on almost all of these roles, including war leaders.  Even the bimo priests, who were exclusively male, had a tradition of a daughter of a famous priest who disguised herself as a man and whose ritual arts surpassed even those of her brothers.  The first-ever Nuosu to earn a Ph.D.,  Bamo Ayi, and the first to earn an American Ph.D., Wu Ga, are both women. Clearly there are openings for capable females in Nuosu culture traditionally and now.

The situation is reflected also in Yangjuan and Pianshui.  Pianshui’s first college student, from the Lurlur clan, was a woman.  Many of the most capable and best-liked teachers at Yangjuan School, including the indefatigable Ma Ajia and the dynamic Luo Xiaoling,  have been women. Ma Vuga and Ma Fagen have been our most capable research collaborators over the years, and now Vuga is a college instructor in Xichang (with her MA from the Southwest Nationalities University) and Fagen is an English teacher at Shuhe Middle School.  There are plenty of precedents for female academic success in the communities.

We find that almost all families are willing, up to a point, to keep their girls in school, to sacrifice so that they can attend high school and college, if they show academic promise. Perhaps they are a little quicker to give up on girls if they are not doing well than they are with boys, but the difference is not great.  Gender imbalance is less severe in this year’s high-school classes.

Whether we need to do something special to promote girls’ education is a topic we need to discuss further.  For now, we know that at least some girls have been able to take advantage of our assistance in order to pursue their own determination to get a an education and make a difference, and that several young women from Pianshui and Yangjuan have done just that.



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Calendars are for more than keeping track of dates

We have now come almost to the end of our 2012 calendar season, which is one of our most important ways of raising funds for our scholarship students and for Yangjuan teachers. Final totals are not in, but we sold over 200 calendars, and received many donations from other friends and well-wishers. Thanks to one and all who contributed.

I want to say something about the calendars themselves. The original calendar was Katharine’s idea, as a way to raise money to give scholarships to Yangjuan School’s first graduating class in 2005. The 2005 calendar was a very amateur affair, and we probably sold around 80 of them. The 2012 calendar is our eighth, and every year we manage to make our look more professional and to come up with new, beautiful, informative pictures by CMEF board members, students, and other visitors to Yangjuan. For our 2013 calendar, we hope to use at least some pictures taken by Yangjuan School graduates, to show their own view of their school, their village, their lives. A new departure for us, and something to look forward to.

And with eight calendars under our belt and the ninth one already in our imagination, by now many friends and supporters have come to look forward to the calendar itself, for its pictures, for the information it contains about village life and school life, and for the way it reminds us of the importance of our work. I see CMEF calendars all over the UW, as well as in the houses of many friends.

In an age when almost one under the age of 50 uses any kind of paper calendar to actually keep track of meetings, appointments, dates, or deadlines, it’s interesting that our old-fashioned paper calendars with their archaic little squares for each day are still drawing so much interest. And I think it would not happen without the calendar format, with its anticipated ritual of turning over a page and seeing a new picture every month. If we tried to sell albums of pictures, with no dates attached, I doubt so many people would be interested. So we hope all our friends and supporters are enjoying our 2012 calendar, and looking forward to a new departure and a native view in our calendar for 2013.

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We’re making a difference

On Thursday, I was delighted to listen a presentation on education by my old friend Scott Rozelle, a Stanford economist who has a really broad knowledge of rural China, and has done many research projects on topics ranging from agriculture to public health to education. He emphasized that one of the biggest challenges facing China in the next decade will be the ability to keep its working-age population employed, given that its labor costs are rising and that the multinational businesses that have turned to China as “the world’s workshop” in the last 20 years will soon be taking their business elsewhere, to places where wages remain cheap. When this happens, China will need to have a workforce educated well enough to make them worth the $10 an hour wages that they will be demanding.

This coming wage crisis, he said, is exacerbated by the fact that China’s social and economic inequality is rising: the latest estimate of the Gini coefficient, a measure of economic inequality ranging from 0 for the most equal societies to 1.00 for the most unequal, is .50, very high by world standards. He emphasized that the countries that have “graduated” in the last three decades from middle-income status (where China is now) to high income status–including Taiwan, South Korea, Portugal, Greece, and others, have all had Gini coefficients below 40, and most of them below 35. China’s is not only high, but increasing, and the biggest factor in the increase is the widening gap not just between cities and countryside, but also between rich rural areas (mostly in the coastal provinces, but also in certain inland places such as the Chengdu Plain) and poor rural areas, which contain about 22% of China’s population. And one of the biggest elements of the inequality between rich and poor rural areas is in education. Whereas over 40% of elementary graduates in China’s cities now attend either four-year colleges or state-accredited junior colleges, in the poor rural areas, the ratio is only 2%. In other words, a child graduating from the sixth grade in a poor rural area has only one-twentieth the chance of attending school enjoyed by her urban counterpart. If she is going to have a job in China’s future high-wage, high-skilled economy, we have to increase her chances of getting a higher education.

The Baiwu Valley is, of course, part of a poor rural area; the whole county of Yanyuan is an officially designated poverty county. So it is really noteworthy that of the 34 children who graduated in Yangjuan’s first class, in 2005, 15 tested into four-year or junior college programs, and 12 of those are attending college right now. In other words, Yangjuan graduates have a record of college attendance comparable with children from an urban elementary school, far, far better than could be expected from a school in a poor rural area, let alone one in a poor, minority rural area.

How much of this is due to our efforts is a matter for us or others to research. But the preliminary conclusion is that we are, indeed, doing some good.

Another question we need to ask ourselves is whether boys and girls are receiving equivalent education at Yangjuan. I will post on this question next week.

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Welcome to our new CMEF website!

We want to welcome all our friends to our new, updated website. It was about time our digital presence caught up to our mission and our accomplishments, and now, thanks to dedicated work by Joanne, Katharine, and Scott, we are about ready to go public. Starting this week, every weekend I will be posting news, thoughts, pictures, correspondence, and other things from and about CMEF, Yangjuan Primary School, the lives of our scholarship recipients, our fundraising, and other pertinent topics. Other members of the board and friends of CMEF will also be posting occasionally, and of course we welcome your comments, questions, and suggestions.

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