In a rural high school in central China, most students spend a lot of time cramming for tests and taking college entrance exams, just like their peers in nearly every high school in the country. But Cai Xiaohai is something of a maverick.
Born to a rural family in Qinchun, a remote county in east China's Hubei province, Cai has different ideas about what it means to succeed and achieve greatness. Most rural kids believe that going to college is the best way to change their destinies, as a college diploma can unlock employment opportunities in China's cities.
But after reading Our Generation, a school newspaper where Cai worked as chief editor, the kids at his school began to think twice about their options.
The newspaper published paintings created by disabled children from another school in the county. Cai visited the children one day on his way home and found that painting was an effective way to communicate with them.
"They can't write, so I tell them to paint their feelings," says Cai. "My classmates think this is amazing. Many of them pass the school every day, but nobody ever stops and visits."
His classmates visited the school after reading about it in the newspaper, getting to know the students there and even visiting them on weekends. Cai's efforts to encourage his fellow students to give back to their communities gave him the inspiration to pursue his dream of helping those in need.
Cai is one of many students who are supplementing their traditional education through the China Rural Library (CRL) program. Founded in September 2007, the CRL program has built 10 public libraries in China's rural areas and brought teachers, books and selective classes into poverty-stricken counties.
There are a growing number of non-profit educational organizations providing alternatives to conventional education, especially in rural areas. A national conference is currently being held in the city of Guangzhou in south China's Guangdong province for non-profit educators to discuss the improvement of rural education quality.
The primary task of most non-profit educational organizations has changed from simply raising funds and building schools to emphasizing the quality of education for rural and migrant children, according to Liang Xiaoyan, deputy secretary-general of the Beijing Western Sunshine Rural Development Foundation, a non-government foundation that promotes rural education in west China.
"Such organizations can provide civic education to children, allowing children to become valuable individuals who are helpful to society," says Jia Xijin, a professor at the School of Public Policy and Management at Tsinghua University.
Li Yingqiang, the founder of the CRL program, says that he is not just helping to build schools, but is creating a new educational path where students can do more than just memorize knowledge. In 2008, he built the first CRL library in his home county of Qinchun after graduating from Peking University.
"Many smart rural children can't get a good education. The exam-oriented education they receive makes them less competitive than students from cities in college, where self-learning, critical thinking and social communication are more important," says Li, who has chosen to homeschool his own daughter.
Each CRL library is served by a full-time librarian, who also organizes extracurricular activities such as reading clubs, film showings, summer and winter camps and elective classes. Students are encouraged to attend classes according to their own interests, just like a regular university.
Last summer, CRL invited professors from top Chinese universities to the village of Qinshi in Qinchun county. More than 300 students applied for 80 spots at the camp. When electricity was cut off in the village in the evenings, the students lit candles and discussed works by renowned thinkers such as Plato, Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre.
Teach for China (TFC), a program similar to CRL, is working to bring quality education to rural students in elementary and junior high schools.
As part of Teach for All, an independent social enterprise from the U.S. that works to expand global education opportunities, TFC came to China in 2009, pairing 165 U.S. and Chinese college graduates to teach full-time at understaffed schools in Guangdong and Yunnan provinces.
Students taught by TFC teachers have not only received higher exam scores, but have been encouraged to take a personal stake in their own education.
"They have a sense of urgency, they feel personally invested in learning, and they understand why they are learning, not only for its own sake," says Sarabeth Berman, vice president of TFC.
College grads who wish to teach for TFC must demonstrate aptitude in seven areas, including leadership, persistence, communication skills and the Chinese language. Although pay is limited, TFC has attracted student teachers from top universities, including Harvard, Yale and Princeton in the U.S. and Tsinghua and Peking University in China.
"We hope our fellows do more than just devote themselves to the program. The program can also teach them a great deal about leadership," says Pei Yu, a TFC recruiter.
Teachers who elect to stay in the program for a second year are encouraged to start community engagement projects. These projects require the teachers to help their students discover, research and solve problems in their own communities.
This spring, teachers at the Heqing County No. 2 Middle School in Yunnan helped their students research local issues ranging from environmental pollution and inadequate transportation to economic efficiency. With the help of TFC teachers, the students proposed a variety of programs and projects to help solve local problems, including a community recycling program, economic cooperatives and a gambling rehabilitation program.
Cai has said that he dreams of being a teacher for a non-profit educational organization. Earlier this summer, his failure to pass the college entrance exam temporarily discouraged him, driving him to leave his hometown and take up a manual labor job for the rest of the summer.
However, with the persuasion of Li, Cai went back to his hometown to study for next year's entrance exam.
"As Mr. Li told me, a college diploma is still necessary in China. But with what I've learned from CRL, I can find a different way to get there," Cai says.