The Dandelion School motto reads in Chinese characters ‘confidence, happiness, looking for truth, and creativity’ painted over rainbow streaks. The Daxing campus glints with glass and ceramic mosaics in dancing flower shapes, an art project created by the students in collaboration with the artist Lily Yeh. The color, as well as the four goals, attempts to hide the pain that pervades the school, which provides middle school education for the children of migrant workers.
According to statistics provided by the school, China has 236 million migrant workers, most of whom are peasant workers. 3.7 million of those migrants live in Beijing, accounting for 490,000 school aged children in need of education. Most of these students lack the fundamentals of education because of the poverty of their native villages. Though Chinese middle schools focus on preparing students for the highly competitive high school entrance exam, Dandelion School aims to give students a broader academic foundation by fostering critical thinking, interdisciplinary studies, literary and artistic pursuits, and a healthy lifestyle. This nurturing approach seems a hefty task to accomplish in just three years.
I entered a middle school classroom packed with five rows with six students each. All the children folded their hands together, elbows resting on their metal student desks. A few kicked their legs in anticipation. "Hello," they sang in unison. My Global Scholars classmates and I lined up at the front of the room, pointing to the countries where we were from: the United States, India, Benin, South Korea, Taiwan, and Nicaragua. The students only knew where the United States and Taiwan were.
For a challenge as vast as that of the education of the migrant worker community, the Dandelion School has succeeded in many areas. Though the class sizes are large, teachers give attention to the children by dividing them into levels based on math scores. Testing serves only as a method for assessing the school's success – the seventh grade teacher assured us that the curriculum focuses on student progress and a passion for learning rather than statistics.
The school structure uses collaboration and small group learning, veering away from the standard Chinese system in favor of catering to the students' unique backgrounds. The computer teacher gave me an example of an objective assignment: her students would look through manuals and figure out the answers for themselves instead of memorizing given answers. The extracurricular activities also stimulate curiosity through alternative approaches to environmental conservation by maintaining a waterfall that powers the electricity, a social enterprise program that combines the cultural tradition of handicraft with business experience, and performing and visual arts clubs that foster confidence.
I sat with four students, trying to convey with as few and simple words as possible the task we had given the class. The project involved creating a new world, using categories such as food, technology, and clothing. Give eleven year olds the freedom to develop their own world and what do they draw? Chopsticks with a fork and knife set at the ends, cows that milk orange juice, white and brown rice that tastes like white and dark chocolate, and apple pizza burgers. Though eager to imagine a place outside the Dandelion School, they hesitated to share their imagination with the class.
Most of the resources for their extracurricular activities, as well as renovations, supplies, and food, have all been donated by foreign companies. The Dandelion School does not solicit aid--companies traveling in Beijing often seek out a token underprivileged school. But despite all of the unsolicited contributions of basketball hoops, library books, and solar panels for hot showers, the students' future seemed grim. Without hukou, the government social security and identification system for Beijing citizens, the students will never receive the same career and healthcare opportunities as the true urbanites.
China repeats the word "innovation" as the key for future development, but creating innovation is a nebulous process. That afternoon's exercise on utopias sparked a pathway to development, the topic of this year's Columbia Global Scholars Program. But these students may never have the opportunity to develop their imagination beyond the classroom.