SHANGHAI — Qu Ting was 12 years old and alone in this city of 20 million people. Her father had died. Her mother had abandoned her. As for her education, it seemed as if middle school was as far as she would go.
"I didn't have money to study," said Qu, who's now 23. "I had no choice. . . . At that time I felt very lonely, and no one can help me because I am too small and my mother did not want to see me, did not want to talk to me, even did not want to bring me home."
Shanghai is the nerve center of China's thriving economy, a booming metropolis that's leading the nation's charge to prosperity, but Qu, like thousands of other poor students in China, seemed destined to be left in the dust.
Education through middle school has been compulsory and free in China since 2007, but it's upon leaving middle school that the problems start for poor and disadvantaged students. After that, families must foot the bill themselves, and poorer students are faced with the reality that high school may not be a viable option.
That leaves students such as Qu with the daunting task of making a life-altering decision at a tender age.
There are several factors for these youngsters to consider: Will they have to join the work force right out of middle school to support themselves and their families? Will the law require them to return to their parents' hometowns for an education? Could a trade school offer an education comparable with China's highly competitive high schools?
The choice is burdensome, and, although most poor students say they want to attend high school and college, the odds often are stacked against them.
Qu chose to fight those odds.
"I think I have a strong personality; I don't want other people to look down on me," she said. "I am strong. I'm tough."
Qu's fortitude paid off. School officials took notice of her situation and put her in touch with Shanghai Sunrise, an organization that foreigners formed in China to sponsor poor students who want to further their education.
She was connected with an American woman living in Shanghai, who helped her attend high school and college. Ten years after Shanghai Sunrise sponsored Qu, she became the organization's first full-time employee.
Qu's story had a happy ending, as do those of thousands of other disadvantaged children who've come to the attention of organizations such as Shanghai Sunrise, which has sponsored more than 1,300 students. They're able to help only a fraction of Shanghai's poor teenagers, however.
High school tuition costs about $450 per year, a big chunk of paycheck for a minimum wage worker in Shanghai, who earns $164 a month.
Although the Shanghai government has increased its efforts to provide more assistance to poor students, including $1.9 billion last year to help the urban poor with their education, there's no guarantee that the government will provide a family with assistance.
Sun Weiguo is one of those minimum wage workers who've found that education for his children is out of reach. After a motorcycle accident that injured his leg forced him out of his job as a laborer, he was demoted to his factory's security team, which earns the minimum wage.
Sun was among those who turned to Shanghai Sunrise, which provided the financial boost he needed to send his son, Sun Xuliang, to high school.
Sun Xuliang's mother, Feng Qin, said she was determined to give her son a better education than the one she'd received during China's Cultural Revolution, which left her with only a middle school education.
Still, many students are beginning to question whether a high school degree is worth the effort. Chinese children don't aspire just to high school diplomas; high school is considered preparation for the extremely competitive college entrance examination. If a university degree isn't in the picture, high school usually isn't, either.
As workers with university degrees grow more numerous, especially in prosperous cities such as Shanghai, poorer teenagers are questioning whether trade school or simply entering the work force might be better options.
"Nowadays in China it is difficult for the younger generation to find a job, even if they graduated from a university," said Bu Yuhua, an education professor at East China Normal University. "So some younger students think there is no meaning in going to a university, and they think they should just go to find a job."
That was the case for Zhu Yu, who grew up in a Shanghai orphanage and postponed his education after middle school. The 19-year-old with a restrained Mohawk haircut and worn basketball shoes thought that China's expanding vocational schools were more practical and "quite reasonable."
Zhu is a student at what may be one of Shanghai's most interesting vocational schools. French bakers in Shanghai created Shanghai Young Bakers to teach orphans and other disadvantaged children how to make high-end breads and pastries. It's a one-year program, and, upon completion, students receive certificates — but never tuition bills.
"A college degree is not useful without technical skills," Zhu said. "Technical skills are in more demand in the job market."
The baking program has helped Liu Zhenzhen — who gave up her chance at a high school education in order for her younger sister to have one — find "the true value of myself." Before she joined it, Liu worked in clothing and light bulb factories and had never tasted French baking.
"One cannot change where he is born, but he can change his fate by his efforts and his practices," said Huang Yongfang, the petite and energetic program director.
In addition to learning to bake French pastries, the students receive paid internships at five-star hotels and classes in English, an essential subject for students with aspirations.
The program, which started in 2008, has 25 students ages 17 to 23.
For the approximately 500,000 students in Shanghai who were born to families that migrated from rural China, however, vocational schools or entering the work force may be the only options if they don't want to leave their families after middle school.
This is due to the Chinese hukou system, a type of identity registration that determines social rights. A child's hukou usually corresponds to the territory that his parents traveled from, meaning that's where he must return for high school. Changing a hukou is essentially out of the question.
"For most of the migrants, it's impossible," said Corrine Hua, the founding director of the Stepping Stones Foundation, a charity that specializes in helping migrant children.
High school "is very, very tough," Hua said. "So they might (prefer that) the kid goes out to work or does vocational training, which will probably improve their chances of getting a decent job in a couple of years' time."
Still, some Shanghai teachers continue to push migrant children to persevere.
One of these teachers is Zhang Yi Chao, the leader of a migrant-tutoring program that's almost hidden between dimly lit car parts stores and under an elevated train track.
"They fear there is no hope for them," said Zhang, who works in a prominent school during the day and volunteers with the migrants in the evening. "I think that is where there is a disaster, because so many kids when they grow up think this society did refuse them . . . and they will hate the society."
(Trowbridge, a graduate of Penn State University, reported this story from Shanghai for a class in international journalism.)
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