It's 5:45 a.m., and students at Hengshui High School, a rural public boarding school in Hengshui, Hebei province, are already running about campus with textbooks in hand, many shouting, “We will win the entrance exam.”
The students run as a way to help them memorize formulas, vocabulary and other lessons. They even run during intervals between classes. It has become something of a school tradition and local curiosity.
It's no wonder they are in such a hurry, as the military-like atmosphere at the high school has the 5,000-strong student body under rigid minute-by-minute control. Students are allowed only four minutes to eat breakfast.
However, Hengshui High School's strict structure and curriculum has helped rural students here realize what used to be an impossible dream: enrollment at Peking and Tsinghua universities, China's top two institutions of higher education.
Touted by many as a “super elite school,” this school is often criticized as a "factory producing college students" and for being too strict and putting too much emphasis on college entrance exams.
But students and their parents say they approve of the school’s policies because it provides average rural students whose parents have no “guanxi” personal connections to help them attend prestigious universities and pursue an elite career in Chinese society.
"No matter how demanding it is, the college entrance exams provide an equal chance for all students, allowing them to make their own paths with individual efforts and talents,” said an education expert who has observed classes at the school. “That's why students there break their backs to succeed.
"Aside from college exams, there really isn’t another fair and incorruptible competition in Chinese society.”
A second-year student at Hengshui High said he agreed that it can be tough, but is glad to be attending the school.
"The curriculum is very demanding," he said. "But I appreciate that I have been able to enroll in this school.”
Hengshui High not only whips its students' brains into shape, it helps mold their physical fitness, too.
An annual school event includes a 40-kilometer marathon walk and military drill with People’s Liberation Army soldiers. The soldiers teach the students to shoot firearms with live ammunition.
"I wouldn’t call it military style," said the second-year male student. "It is probably exactly what we need right now.”
Last year, 104 students from Hengshui High School passed the entrance exams to Peking University and Tsinghua University, accounting for 80 percent of the new students quota assigned to Hebei province for the two universities.
The rate of students from Hengshui High School passing the exams for the two universities is the highest in China.
Many Hengshui High graduates have also enrolled at top universities in Japan, the United States and Europe. The hallways of the school are lined with the portraits of top students who went on to study at prestigious colleges and universities.
Students here not only compete against one another, but also by class versus class. Inside classrooms, names and portraits of top students are proudly on display, as well as the names of their rivals.
Romance is banned. A boy and girl having lunch together or caught exchanging notes or letters is considered "abnormal contact,” according to school rules, and they could face suspension.
The instruction guidelines for teachers say that once they allow budding romance, “its flame will burn down the entire classroom.”
INTENSIFYING EXAMS WAR
Just two decades ago, Hengshui High School was an average high school in a rural area. Then, the school principal introduced a tough merit system that had strict control on students’ lives to turn the school into a "super elite school.”
Once a school wins recognition as an elite institute of learning, local governments increase subsidies, and principals and other senior school officials are able to win promotion in the ranks of education administration.
Behind such moves is the intensifying competition among high schools across China in the escalating "exams war” for college entrance.
In early June, 9.39 million students took this year’s nationally standardized college entrance exams, and only about 6,000 students were admitted to Peking University and Tsinghua University.
Each year, as the season of college entrance exams approaches, the Chinese media report how the escalating exams war is imposing heavy burdens on students, some of whom even commit suicide from the pressure to succeed.
Although some education experts point out that the intensity of the exams war should be recognized as a social problem, others justify such “super elite schools” as Hengshui High School as a necessary evil.
"After all, the school offers education that students, teachers and parents all want,” Chinese media concluded in its report on the school.
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