The drive for greater inclusiveness in China's schools is providing many lessons. Li Lei reports.
In 2018, stay-at-home father Qi Yonggang braced himself for what he imagined would be a tough battle. He wanted to get his daughter, Guoguo, who has autism, into a primary school in Beijing. To Qi's relief, the school accepted Guoguo with little fuss.
However, despite the improved inclusiveness of China's ultracompetitive mainstream schools, Qi found himself in a new dilemma.
He had hired a special educator, a so-called shadow teacher, to help Guoguo adapt to the fast-paced, nonprotective campus life, but the school administrators disliked the idea of accommodating an outsider. Frustratingly for Qi, they also failed to propose any alternatives.
In some more developed nations, shadow teachers have become a mainstay in schools as part of efforts to promote integrated education.
Each teacher works directly with an individual child with special needs, ranging from autism to hyperactivity to communication difficulties. With minimal interference, they facilitate the child's social interaction, explain school rules, assist with schoolwork and help navigate other challenges in regular classes.
The administrators at Guoguo's school regarded shadow teachers with caution because there were few precedents for the imported idea.
They also feared that the development would disrupt the established rules and compromise teaching efficiency, possibly causing discontent among other students and parents.
Qi, who runs a WeChat support group for more than 900 parents of autistic children, was fully aware of the benefits the shadow teacher would provide for Guoguo, and the downside if such assistance were not available.
"Without proper support, attending regular classes just becomes 'sitting in' on regular classes," he said.
He noted that a lack of interaction chips away at the value of the assistance the children receive in promoting their development and integration with the "real world".
The presence of disabled students in regular classrooms dates back to the days following the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, mostly as a result of local initiatives, experts said.
The idea really began to gain traction nationwide in the late 1980s, though, when education authorities experimented by including a number of blind, visually impaired and intellectually disabled children in mainstream schools in Beijing and Hebei, Heilongjiang and Jiangsu provinces. The practice was later expanded nationwide.
The move offered an alternative to having such children attend special schools, which are usually less competitive academically and largely insulated from the outside world.
The effort reaped rewards, and 332,000 disabled students were enrolled at mainstream schools in 2018, government figures show.
According to a 2019 white paper on the welfare of disabled people, more than half the disabled school students in China have studied at regular schools in the past 10 years.
"But progress in terms of on-campus support has lagged behind in relative terms," said Qi, who quit his job as an accountant in 2017 to focus on his daughter's schooling.
Wei Wenxia, a single mother from Chongqing, understands the challenges such students face in integrated classes where support is absent.
She fought an uphill battle to get her daughter, who has autism, into a local mainstream school. Unable to hire a shadow teacher because of the cost, Wei promised to accompany her daughter to many classes.
The school has a "resource classroom" staffed by students from a local college who are majoring in special education.
However, when Wei's daughter was attending the school, the classroom was usually locked and the student educators were nowhere to be seen. In addition, Wei felt she had more understanding of autism than most of the special teachers.
When her daughter made it to the third grade, Wei found that the girl was becoming increasingly anxious in class, so she decided to let her quit school and have lessons at home.
"I sent my daughter to the school to better integrate with society. It would not have been worth going to all that trouble if her condition had worsened," she said.
Qi, a self-taught early development expert, said it is crucial that Guoguo and her peers attend mainstream schools, irrespective of difficulties that may arise. He was unwilling to allow Guoguo to be starved of interaction and other forms of stimulation during the "golden period" of her development by having her stay at home or by enrolling her at special education institutions, where the teachers tend to be overly protective.
Without proper stimulation, disabled children's linguistic and social capabilities wane over time, he said.
In response, Qi went to great lengths to convince the school authorities that the long-term benefits of using a shadow teacher would outweigh any inconvenience.
As a compromise, the school green lighted a trial for the 2018-19 academic year. The break with protocol made Guoguo the only student known to be allowed to bring a private educator onto campus in Beijing, and possibly China, at the time.
However, the head teacher of Guoguo's class resigned soon after the announcement, and Qi suspected that the shadow teacher decision was at least partly responsible for the rupture.
Despite the school's misgivings, when the 12-month trial ended, the predicted disruption and feared bullying had not materialized. That resulted in the school giving permission for all disabled students to be accompanied by a shadow teacher.
Guoguo's improvement is obvious to her parents and teachers. This year, now age 9, she scored 67 on the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, an intelligence test for children ages 6 to 16, compared with 59 last year.
Qi has also witnessed a huge development in his daughter's social skills, but he conceded that Guoguo has been lucky, because the general shortage of support has forced many disabled students to quit mainstream schools.
The teachers reported that they had suffered no added burden, and said they were surprised by the progress Guoguo had made.
Moreover, the other students had shown a good sense of social responsibility. The school even included Guoguo's case in its annual report to the municipal government as part of its work highlights.
Elated, Qi contacted local lawmakers and political advisers in hopes of spawning wider changes.
"There are now fewer schools in Beijing's Chaoyang district that still ban shadow teachers from campus," he said, referring to the sprawling neighborhood in east Beijing where Guoguo's school is located.
Despite the progress made, the cost of each shadow teacher, around 15,000 yuan ($2,321) a month in Beijing, must still be paid by the student's family.
To bolster the talent supply and help reduce costs, Qi and several other parents have founded a nonprofit that recruits college graduates with backgrounds in special education and trains them as shadow teachers.
"Our ultimate goal is to see them included in the government-funded pool of teachers, which would help solve the cost issue," he said.
That also appears to be the government's aim. Last year, the Ministry of Education released a policy document to further boost inclusiveness during children's nine years of compulsory education.
The document urged the establishment of special education resources classrooms in schools with five or more disabled students.
It said the classroom should be staffed by professionals offering psychological counseling, rehabilitation therapy and other services tailored for individuals, and it also encouraged local authorities to purchase services from professional groups.
In addition, it called for the establishment of county-level resource centers to offer guidance to schools that enroll disabled students.
Qi praised the move, noting that many parents who cannot afford shadow teachers have been undertaking the highly specialized tasks themselves.
However, he felt that some parents have "over-accompanied" their children on campus, which has been detrimental to their development.
Not only that, the burden of assuming the role of special educator has taken a toll on the psychological well-being of some parents.
"Dozens of parents I know are taking antidepressants," Qi said.
"While accompanying their kids on campus, they see the behavioral gap between them and other children, and that can be extremely depressing."