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Private Boarding Kindergartens Gaining Popularity in China - 2004-06-10

When Americans have the money to do so, mothers and fathers stay home with the kids or they hire a babysitter. In China, families have long used boarding schools that allow parents to work longer hours. With China's economy booming, striving middle class couples are clambering to get their only child into a private boarding school. Some schools take children as young as two-and-a-half years old.

It is Friday afternoon at the Li Mai School, a sprawling complex set in farmland outside Beijing. Students are playing while they wait for the buses that will take them home after a full week at school. About one thousand students, aged from two to 18 years of age, attend Li Mai. Wang Yi Qi and Shang Jun are both 10 years old.

They have lived together at Li Mai, Monday through Friday, since kindergarten. They walk hand in hand, leaning into each other and whispering. They are best friends, catching their final moments together before boarding the bus to go home for the weekend.

Shang Jun says she would rather be at school than go home to her family.

"Because at home I have one brother and no one to play with me. So I prefer to be at school,? she says.

Her friend agrees.

"I'm often alone at home. There's nothing fun to do. I just watch TV most of the time," she adds.

Li Mai's headmaster is 62-year-old Fang Xuan Chu. He says most of Li Mai's students live in Beijing's new high-rise apartments. He grew up in a traditional hutong courtyard house, where extended families lived together and grandparents took care of the children so the parents could work.

Of Beijing's cozy old hutong neighborhoods, 70 percent will be demolished before the Olympic games here in 2008. Mr. Fang says the hutongs were a great place to grow up.

"I used to live in a hutong. We had neighbors who were very a big family. Now we feel lonely living in tall apartment block," says Fang Xuan Chu.

Roughly 80 percent of Li Mai's students have no brothers and sisters and might otherwise be spoiled, says the headmaster. The school teaches children social skills and responsibility, while academic programs improve their chances for success. In the super-heated Chinese economy, competition is stiff for good jobs and college placements.

Among all 18-to-22-year-olds in China last year, only 17 percent could get into college. In this highly charged atmosphere, Headmaster Fang says Li Mai attracts three different kinds of families: Super-competitive affluent parents who want to pay others to give their two-and-a-half-year-olds an advantage for getting into college; middle class parents who pool their money with two sets of grandparents in order to give their only child the best possible start and families with two working parents who are simply too busy to raise their own child.

Li Mai tries to be like a home to the children, but teacher Jao Hai Jun says there is an adjustment period.

"When they first get here, they're really depressed, but teachers spend extra time taking care of them,? says Li Mai. ?Teachers keep a close eye on these new arrivals, like their own mothers would if they saw their kids in a bad mood."

There is a mother figure assigned to each group of 10 of the youngest children, aged two-and-a-half to four. She is called a "life teacher," and her sole job is to fill the emotional needs of the child. She lives with the children in the pastel colored kindergarten building that features cartoon character sculptures on the lawn, of deer, mice and ducks.

A typical day starts with a 6:30 a.m. wake-up call in the classroom-sized dormitory, where 16 junior sized beds are lined up two by two. Once up, teeth are brushed in a long communal sink. There are two tiny western toilets next to a traditional Chinese squat toilet, and 16 showerheads. Little waiting uniforms are lined up on hangers above the sink.

Next, breakfast is downstairs, then time to run around outside before classes start. There are two academic teachers for each group of 10, and the morning is full of classes. At noon it is time to rest and have lunch, then art and physical education take up the afternoon. Bedtime is 8:00 p.m..

Not all children are picked up each weekend. Many like to stay for the special weekend activities, but others have no choice. Primary school student Hu Sha Nia says some of her friends are left behind because it is convenient for the parents. "Sometimes some parents are too busy, then they will call the school and tell them that they will not be coming to pick up their kids," she says.

Teacher Jao Hai Jun says the school does what it can to keep these kids happy.

"Because they couldn't go home, they must feel a little bit sad. We organize all kinds of activities so that their weekend can be very good," says Jao Hai Jun.

Sometimes kids are not picked up for two or three months at a time. Some stay in the school's summer program while their peers go home.

Headmaster Fang recognizes that in today's China, people work long hours just to keep up, but he has little patience for those who neglect their kids.

?I think if the parents gave birth to the child, but do not take good care of him, they obviously have some problem. I do not agree with them," he says.

For these parents, Li Mai also offers parenting classes.

To the strains of music, the school buses pull out of the walled compound through the front gate. Playing in the dirt just outside is a two-year-old child being watched by her grandmother and mother who decline to give their names.

Asked whether she wishes her child could attend the Li Mai School, the mother says she could not afford it. It is all for the best, says the grandmother, as she points to the school across the road, because if her granddaughter goes to this local school, she'll sleep at home every night with her family.

"We have our people in our own home and she has me, her grandmother, to take care of her," she syas.

The Li Mai school is expensive by Chinese standards: $4000-$5000 a year, according to the child's age. There are more affordable boarding kindergartens, but all offer parents an uninterrupted workweek and demand is up.

Headmaster Fang estimates that the number of boarding kindergartens has tripled since he attended one as a boy, and some figures indicate that upwards of 25 percent of Beijing's kindergarteners currently attend Monday through Friday boarding schools.