Guo Zhilin sits anxiously in the first row of her red-brick schoolroom. She whispers a few words to her friend and then proudly, but hesitantly, announces, "Welcome ... our ... school." She nudges the girl next to her. "This is my new friend Han Xi. She is from Anhui Province."
All of the children in this school are from provinces across China; none have legal permission to attend the Beijing public schools. Their parents are migrant workers, part of China's massive floating population, and they lack hukuo, or residency permits. So the children are here, at Xingzhi Primary School for migrant children on Beijing's western outskirts.
It is hard to hear her over the cacophony. Zhilin and Xi share this 10-by-15-foot classroom with more than 40 students.They press against each other on wooden benches. A few arrive too late to get a seat and must lean against the back wall.
Fan Wei, their English language teacher, came here two years ago after graduating from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Ms. Fan loves her job and the children, even when they are jumping out of their seats. But it's difficult: "the older children need to start all over every time they move," she says. Fan has children ranging from age 8 to 14 in her third-grade class – a result of frequent moves. And, she adds, her students have only one book, which they must pay for themselves.
"It is not enough, children need to read," she says.
It is difficult to know how many children are in migrant schools in China, because most are not officially sanctioned. But according to official Chinese media sources, more than 300,000 migrant children in Beijing attend 300 schools.
Private charitable groups put the number even higher – 500,000 children, according to Compassion for Migrant Children, a group that helps fund and nurture migrant children's schools. If these schools – whose quality varies widely – did not exist, the children would either be left behind in their villages with relatives or left on their own all day in the big cities while their parents worked, spawning a new generation of uneducated laborers.
At Xingzhi, 40 teachers are charged with educating more than a thousand students. Specialists like Fan teach only English to the same 40 children who are part of another teacher's class; she and other teachers float in and out of these larger classes. When the kids get excited, the decibel level in the classroom rivals that of a large jet engine.
Liu Shufang, the school's headmaster, says 1,156 students attend school here and another 1,000 attend just down the road. That's a big jump from 12 years ago, when the school started with only nine children. Mr. Liu says the students come from 24 provinces, some from as far as Guangdong in southern China.
Liu sees no slowdown in the number of children arriving at his doorstep, despite the fact that the government has focused on economic development in interior provinces as a way to stem the tide of migrants to Beiing, Shanghai, and Shenzhen.
Liu, for his part, would like the government to rethink the hukou requirement. He says that as long as parents find work in Beijing, they will continue to come and will continue to bring their children with them. The money is good, and, as limited as his school's resources are, Liu says it is better than the schools back in migrant families' home provinces.
Still, while Beijing's skyscrapers are visible outside Liu's window, the school is inaccessible by car. Students walk over a rusting footbridge that crosses a dried-up irrigation channel to get to Xingzhi. The school consists of several single-story brick buildings; some of the most dilapidated ones are surrounded by corrugated metal with warning signs to "stay out."
Students must purchase all their own supplies in addition to tuition, which is the equivalent of $130 a year per child – about what the average migrant worker can earn in a month in Beijing. In their hometowns, Liu says, they could never earn that kind of money.
Despite the bare-bones operation, Liu says Xingzhi School is one of the fortunate ones.
A few years ago, it was granted an official license to run the school, which means it gets a tiny amount of money from the government to improve conditions.
Two years ago, the school installed a heating system; before that, they used coal bricks to try to warm the classrooms.
"It was dangerous," he recalls. "We needed to keep the windows open in the winter to let the fumes out. It was not warm."
Xingzhi houses grades one through six. After that, some students move onto a migrant secondary school, but for many, this is the end of the road. The children return to their home provinces and get jobs. Few finish high school.
But Liu is hopeful. His own education was interrupted by the turmoil of China's Cultural Revolution, when many schools did not function. He wants his students, he says, to have what he didn't.
Lui recently heard from one student that her older brother was going to university in the fall. Liu looks wistfully out the window of his office and breaks into a smile.