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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

China is facing a big challenge educating the children of its tens of millions of migrant workers. That appears to be the biggest mass migration in world history, and those who leave rural villages for the cities leave their children behind. NPR's Larry Abramson visited one boarding school that's aiming to offer a quality education.

LARRY ABRAMSON: If you want to get to the Guan Ai school in Shanxi Province, take a bus from the historic city of Xi'an, ride three hours into mountains. When you get to the city of Jong Zhi(ph), you'll have to bum a ride down 20 minutes of rutted, dirt road. Stop when you get to Houjia village, home to about 500 souls.

(Soundbite of school bell)

ABRAMSON: You can't miss the school. It's a humble brick building with a dirt yard. There are photos of Mao, Marx and Stalin on the walls. Most of the 190 kids, grades one through six, live here. One of them gets to ring the bell between classes.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

ABRAMSON: You'll be well-received - that's a given. Kids are drawn like teenage groupies to any foreign visitor, especially one with lots of electronic toys to play with.

(Soundbite of children laughing)

ABRAMSON: About half the Chinese population lives in rural areas, far from the boom-times that urban areas are enjoying. In response to local migrant parents who wanted a boarding school, a local couple started Guan Ai, which means loving care.

It beats living with relatives and traveling each day to distant schools, but it's still hard for the younger kids.

Ms. DIANE GANG(ph) (Nonprofit Worker, China): Especially for the first and second-graders. It's very difficult for them when they first arrive, but you know, at the beginning of the semester, a lot of them will cry every night.

ABRAMSON: Diane Gang is a Chinese-American woman who started a nonprofit that has adopted Guan Ai and is aiding other efforts to improve rural education in China. She guides me through the dirt yard to the cafeteria, where the kids are gathering to eat.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

ABRAMSON: Students line up for buns and soup. They stand next to a little mountain of coal that serves as fuel for every meal. Guan Ai was not damaged in the big earthquake that struck Sichuan Province in May, but the tragedy has raised new concerns about the school's dilapidated buildings. School leaders hope to replace the oldest structures.

(Soundbite of child shouting)

ABRAMSON: Most of the kids are pretty dirty, but happy. They make a special point of washing their feet each night before bed. During some down-time, the staff plays music through the P.A. system. John Denver probably didn't have this small village in mind when he wrote "Country Roads."

(Soundbite of song, "Country Roads")

ABRAMSON: Later in the evening, the kids gather for more class time. Guan Ai is trying to get away from the rote learning common in many Chinese schools, and is encouraging imaginative thinking.

(Soundbite of children shouting)

Ms. GANG: Should I tell stories? And they said yes.

ABRAMSON: The kids are bursting with energy, and it's hard to get them to settle down, but eventually, they take the exercise seriously. One group stages a little skit.

Ms. GANG: So the purpose of that skit was to tell people not to distort your books and destroy them, because we have a library here now, and that - like, you can see the books get kind of ragged pretty quickly.

ABRAMSON: The chances that these kids will make it past ninth grade are not good. That's when mandatory education in China ceases. Guan Ai is one small effort to instill a more positive attitude toward school.

One teacher, Mr. Pei(ph), says he thinks the school is making a difference.

Mr. PEI (Teacher, Guan Ai School, China): (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. GANG: He says the kids here are used to thinking more and asking questions a lot, and they're also - their relationship with the teachers is a lot closer. Whereas at public schools, often kids have a feeling in their hearts of fearing the teacher.

ABRAMSON: Guan Ai is also trying to emphasize skills that traditional schools don't teach. Grandparents come in and teach paper-cutting, and now there's a music class.

(Soundbite of song, "Jingle Bells")

ABRAMSON: A group of schools stages a little concert in a bare-walled building next to the school. One girl blows so intensely in her trumpet, she looks like she's about to explode.

(Soundbite of bus engine)

Every other Friday afternoon, kids cram into some rickety buses. They trundle down the dirt road and take kids home for a weekend with grandparents, then it's back to school at Guan Ai. Larry Abramson, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You can find some pictures of a day in the life of students at Guan Ai at npr.org.

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