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A primary school in Yunlin, one of Taiwan’s poorest counties, fights to stay open as Taiwan’s population shrinks.
Under the blazing hot sun, a group of sixth-grade students sweat profusely as they cycle along Taiwan’s coastal road. The trip takes place over six days during the Lunar New Year holiday, an annual graduation adventure organized by a remote primary school in Yunlin, one of Taiwan’s poorest counties.
This year, only five students make the 300-kilometers journey from Beigang Township in Yunlin, to the southern tip of the island, the seaside resort of Kenting.
Yunlin is facing a population decline. For Dongrong primary school, this is evident in diminishing class sizes.
The small legion of high-viz jackets on red bicycles is led by a cycling instructor who has guided the trip from its inception seven years ago.
The kids are flanked by teachers and volunteers on mopeds, protecting them from the barreling cement trucks and roaring motorbike gangs that zoom past on the highway.
Dongrong’s Dean Chang says the trip is designed for the kids “to get to know themselves, as well as Taiwan.” They stop off for classes along the way, learning about the island beyond their remote agricultural hometown.
The students tour a Hakka village in Neipu, Pingtung, with decaying landmarks dating back to the period of Spanish colonization in the 17th century. In the county, they visit an old people’s home, stop-off at President Tsai Ing-wen’s seaside ancestral home in Fangshan, get their hands dirty picking radishes at an organic farm, and visit a national park to see endangered Taiwanese deer.
After the long day expelling sweat and absorbing information, the kids roll out their sleeping mats on the floors of temples or schools that have lent them spare rooms for the night.
This trip forms part of Dongrong’s broader fight to attract Yunlin’s dwindling share of young students. The county’s population fell by 3.3% last year as the death rate outpaced the birth rate. That is reflected in the broader demographic trend in Taiwan, which saw its population shrink for the first time last year.
To add to the demographic pressure, Yunlin also has one of the highest emigration rates in Taiwan, many leaving their agricultural hometown for work in the industrial cities of Kaohsiung and Taoyuan.
Dongrong, which only has 39 students across the six grades, needs to remain competitive with local parents, or the government could force them to merge with other local schools.
The trip is one of the school’s key selling points. Children learn more about their diverse island at first hand and by interacting with the teachers on the trip, who encourage them to articulate their opinions.
The only girl in the class, Tsai Xing-fei, aspires to be a journalist. Over a bento lunch, she discusses her recent school report about transgender people, inspired by a dream about a girl who wanted to become a boy. She says simply, “I woke up and thought, why can’t she be a boy?”
Xing-fei’s progressive views have been fostered through exchanges with the youngest member of the teaching staff. Liu Zong-yi, a recent graduate from National Taiwan University, arrived at Dongrong through the “Teach for Taiwan” initiative, which sends talented young teachers to rural schools.
The program seeks to combat the main pedagogical challenge facing rural schools: the shortage of well-qualified teachers. The blunt reality is that for ambitious teachers, professional opportunities are concentrated in the cities, where nearly 80% of the population lives.
Rural schools rely heavily on substitute teachers, and the constant turnover of new instructors can harm the children’s education.
For Dean Chang, the cycling trip is attracting not only students but also good teachers. It deepens teachers’ bonds with pupils and drives them to stay put in Yunlin.
But for the five students, it is nearing their time to move on from Dongrong. From the start of the next school year in August, they will take lessons apart for the first time as they attend different schools across Yunlin.
When asked if they will miss one another, one student quips, “It’s okay, we can cycle to see each other on weekends.”
TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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