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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Elite Training Grounds


IN A NONDESCRIPT CEMENT building in a remote corner of Beijing's Haidian district, an array of children in non-standard school uniforms greet visitors with a hearty, "Hello visitor! Hello uncle!" Outside the compound's main building, other kids are enjoying a few minutes of recess before returning to their hectic daily classroom schedule. With its buildings in need of a coat of paint and its location on farm land, Shangli Primary could easily be mistaken for a typical Chinese public school.

It is most definitely not. Shangli represents an entirely new trend in Chinese educational reform: a private week-day boarding school that caters as much to its students as to the needs of their busy parents. The children live in dorms from Monday to Friday; from 6:30 a.m. until lights out at 9:00 p.m. they are taught, fed, tutored and supervised by well-trained and motivated staff. Shangli boasts a student-teacher ratio of 20 to 1, half that of typical public schools. The amount of personal attention heaped upon these children would be impossible for parents to duplicate themselves, even if they had the time and desire to do so. Many of the parents apparently do not - at least according to some of the kids. "My mother is too busy helping with dad's business," one of a group of bright-eyed girls offered in explanation of why she was sent to Shangli.

All this personalized attention, of course, does not come free. The first pecuniary hurdle that parents must get over is the school's "sponsorship fee," which is enormous by Chinese standards. To enroll a child in Shangli, there is an initial, non-refundable charge of $3,600. Then there are annual tuition fees and room and board, which come to $1,550, up from $1,200 last year. Considering that the average annual household income in Beijing falls between $1,800 and $3,600, the school's clientele is obviously not made up of typical Beijing wage earners. Most families have at least one parent who is a professional.

There are now 20 such "aristocratic schools" in Beijing, all set up within the last two and a half years (see chart). Their success points to the enormous pent-up demand for high-quality education among China's expanding middle class. "As long as my kid can go to a high-caliber school, we are willing to pay as much as they ask in terms of sponsorship fees," one father says. "In the long run, this is money well spent."

Shangli is required to use the same government-issued textbooks as public schools, though it is not entirely controlled by the authorities. "Officials of the State Educational Commission do drop in once in a while," says Shangli's principal, Zhou Yumei. "But generally they leave us alone because the test scores of our students are a bit higher than those of daily commuting schools. And parents appreciate us," Zhou adds, "precisely because their children's grades improve markedly soon after they are enrolled." Which may be the real bottom line for choosing a school like Shangli.

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