Tucked into a small side street in the Changping District just north of Beijing, a school stands out in bright, childlike colors — orange and green. Cheerful music plays between classes as students stream into the courtyard to play.
The school, like many in China, is for migrant children — serving those who are barred from Beijing's public schools. It is unlicensed and living a precarious existence, like many of the migrants themselves. Officials could order it to close at moment's notice. The principal asked us not to name it or its teachers for fear of drawing government attention.
"You can see this street — all of the buildings on the south side have been taken down," says Molly, a volunteer teacher who asked us not to use her full name. "And when school[s] close, they don't have a place to go."
Migrants in China have traveled to cities for work by the hundreds of millions, and while their work has powered much of China's swift development, their legal situation is in some ways similar to undocumented immigrants in the United States. Although they have not crossed an international border, their moves from the countryside to cities can put them on the wrong side of government rules and regulations.
They are not allowed to permanently relocate without providing extensive documentation and paying fees most can't afford. Even though some 8 million migrants live in and around Beijing alone, many don't have access to public services — including health care or education — because they are supposed to get them in their hometowns.
"All of the public schools are for local people," says Molly. "We call that the hukou."
Hukou is China's rigid household registration system, in which a person's residency is tied to the place where their family is from. Because it's difficult and expensive to gain residency in the city, many migrant students must enroll in private schools.
Periodically the government has cracked down on these schools as part of a widespread "urban rectification" program to control Beijing's booming population — which has soared to 21 million despite government discouragement — leaving students and teachers alike in limbo.
Some people who do have local hukou, like Molly, have mixed feelings about the crackdowns.
"I see more and more people coming into Beijing causing all the trouble here like traffic and air pollution," she says. "So the city's trying to get people to leave ... and I don't know if that's the right way, but I know it needs to be done."
Another teacher named Helen says through an interpreter that she was working at a migrant school nearby until earlier this fall, when the government ordered it to shutter. She and fifteen of her third-grade students had to transfer to the Changping school.
"All the teachers and students scattered and they need to find their own place," the interpreter says. "When they were expelled, she felt like the city is excluding the migrants."
Helen herself is a migrant, coming to Beijing from Inner Mongolia with her 10-year-old daughter. Despite the instability she says it's better to stay than go back to her hukou, because she has a better chance of finding work here.
Her daughter came with her to the new school. When asked what kind of future she wants for her daughter, Helen's voice cracks and her eyes mist, but she never breaks eye contact.
"She doesn't really hope her daughter becomes something — she hopes her daughter can be just happy," the interpreter says. "All she wants for her daughter is happiness. That's the priority."
Will she have opportunities to become happy in the future, a reporter asked?
"I think so," the interpreter says as Helen laughs. "Because she studies very hard."
Morning Edition editor Miranda Kennedy and Isabelle Li contributed to this report.
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