Mainland vocational school gives disruptive students a second chance to learn
At the school founded by Yang Changhong, students go through a stringent daily regimen of training. Their military-style uniform symbolises the special type of education they are in for.
The school, located on the outskirts of Guiyang, the provincial capital of Guizhou, caters for at-risk youths - students predominantly from impoverished rural areas with behavioural or academic problems. Often neglected in mainstream schools, they are prone to going astray. Some have broken the law.
For a decade, Yang has been determined to give them a second chance. Growing up in a remote village in the province, he witnessed many fellow youngsters, often deprived of attention from their parents who had gone to the cities to work, quit school and then go astray.
"Many students from villages do not treasure the chance of studying and quit easily," he says.
Soon after graduating from Guizhou Radio and Television University in 2004, he set up the school by selling his family's means of support - a few pigs and cows - to give vulnerable youths an educational opportunity. Empathy for village children is his driving force, he says during a recent trip to Hong Kong to visit the Lantau-based Christian Zheng Sheng College that tries to reform young drug offenders.
His co-educational residential school, the Guiyang Xingzhi Science and Technology Vocational School, is located in a mountainous area and is in bad physical shape. With an initial investment of only 10,000 yuan (HK$12,600), Yang could not afford a permanent site, he says.
The school has moved four times so far, following the expiration of leases. In the early days, Yang and several of his university friends taught for free.
Now with 300 students, up from about the initial 100, it has dilapidated structures and a leaking roof. Its 14 teachers each earn about 1,800 yuan a month, less than half what the average mainland school teacher gets.
Yang does not collect a salary. His parents, who live in the school, sell potatoes for one yuan each to support themselves, in a wooden tent.
Students follow a strict daily routine that begins at 6.30am. The morning is taken up by exercise, followed by basic training in computers or for other trades, such as electrician.
Following lunch, students engage in physical labour such as growing vegetables, carpentry work, or other activities that constitute what Yang calls "life education".
In the evening, sessions are held which allow students to share their problems with staff.
Monday afternoons are reserved for a school meeting at which student representatives share any learning issues they might have, or issues they have found with school management.
Yang is adamant that an open, supportive school environment is necessary for the children to regain their self-confidence and drive to learn. "They came with feelings of anger; their past teachers sneered at them. We have to make them feel that they can trust and confide in us. Once you enter their inner world, they will talk to you. If you can't, there is no way you can help them, they won't listen to you," he says.
Village by village, he approached principals, and asked them if they wanted to send him students who they wanted to expel. He was often rejected. "They thought we were crazy," says the 31-year-old education major.
Still, word spread and his efforts paid off. The employment rate of his school's 2,000-odd graduates is quite high, he notes. Some have become bosses, he says with satisfaction.
He is also pleased by the positive attitudes that the formerly errant youths have developed. "Employers have told us that they are loyal at work. Some have even formed their own companies. That gave me a lot of joy," says Yang.
When they first arrived at the school, some students drank beer and got drunk every day. But instead of criticising them, he sought to befriend each by showing them care and support.
"It is an education of tolerance. When they were sober, I shared with them the things I would do to vent my frustrations. You have to become their friend first and play with them," he says.
"If they doze off in class, we ask why they are tired and let them rest. We ask them not to compare themselves with others, but with how they were before they came, to see if they have improved. Once a student sees he has made improvement, he finds joy in learning."
The 15- and 16-year-olds are also involved in monthly community services, helping clean the houses of elderly people who live alone, tilling their fields, or serving as voluntary security guards for companies.
Some of these companies have hired the students after they graduated. "Their skills are not advanced, but they have learned to value life, persevere and respect their work. We have no regular premises and yet they stayed for three years."
Since 2011, China has provided subsidies for vocational colleges, sparing students the need to pay tuition, says Yang. But the subsidy is hardly enough to cover the expenses of running a residential college. Yet Yang has no thoughts of giving up. He insists on his expensive model of investing time and personal attention in the youths.
He and his teachers try to engage them through talking. "It's important to help them find someone they can talk to and trust. If not, they will develop pent-up frustration; many were highly defensive when they came; they did not even respond when we called their names.
"Gradually, once they realise we are sincere, they open up. Once they have accepted us, we can help them plan their life and show them how to spend time meaningfully."
Such close bonding is beneficial to the students' development, he says. It is sometimes very personal: students helped with the celebrations at his wedding, which was held at the school.
China has announced a Modern Vocational Education Development Strategy to raise the number of students in vocational institutions from 29.34 million to 38.3 million by 2020.
But that may bring few changes to Yang's school. "In normal circumstances, a school like ours would cease to exist. But it carries on because kids stick to it. They trust and love this broken, dilapidated school. That makes me proud," he says.