Lei Xiubin, 8, got up early Thursday eager for the first day of the new school year. After a quick breakfast, the cheerful little girl headed of down the road in her new dress.
Located in picturesque Yongtai County, east China's Fujian Province, Hexi Primary School is quite special and Xiubin is the star pupil. In fact, she is the only pupil. She receives 100 percent of the attention of Cheng Guiying, the only teacher.
With the reform of rural education and urbanization, village schools have lost many students to central primary schools in towns and cities.
Xiubin's parents moved away to find better jobs, so she was left in the village in the care of her grandparents and the local authorities decided to keep the village school open, just for her.
Teacher Cheng arrived at the school early to get things ready. Tiny as the school may be, Cheng and Xiubin go meticulously through the ritual of raising the national flag every morning, before beginning their first lesson. Today, "Autumn is coming," leaves are falling from the trees, and the wild geese are flying south.
Cheng has been working at the school for 20 years. She teaches 10 subjects, including PE, and music. Students must leave the village school after grade 2 to attend the central primary school in town, because Cheng cannot to give English or computer lessons.
When she first arrived in Hexi, there were dozens of students, and year by year, the number has dwindled until only Xiubin remains.
"I have to play the role of her classmate as well as teacher, reciting poems, singing songs and playing games with her to make her feel less lonely," said Cheng.
More than just teacher and classmate, Cheng is a kind of "parent by proxy," preparing lunch for the little girl and making sure she takes a nap afterwards.
The lonely school, however, is not alone. Of 78 rural primary schools in Yongtai County, seven have one student and one teacher each.
Dongsheng Primary School, 12 kilometers away from the county seat, enrolled one student in the new school year. The school boasts a 3-storey building, which speaks of its glorious past, but now only one classroom is used for teaching, plus another for the village kindergarten.
The disadvantages of these tiny schools are obvious: the teachers' careers are at a dead end; the pupils' personal and social development are impeded.
As a result, while some salute the county for respecting every child's right to education, others argue that it is a waste of resources as standards in rural schools lag far behind their counterparts in towns and cities.
But local people are reluctant to see their village schools shut down. She Xuedong, whose child will go to the primary school next year, would like to send her kid to the village school for as long as it exists.
Faced with a dilemma, the local government eventually chose to stand by the disadvantaged few.
"We do not like 'only-child' schools either, but they are the last resort and the only option for some students," said Zhang Yuanming, deputy director of the county education bureau. "Most are from poor families and cannot afford to rent a house in town," Zhang added.
According to Zhang, eliminating "only-child" schools and helping rural students get a better education can be expensive. The county is considering support for poor families, such as providing them with land to build houses in town so that they can live closer to central primary schools.
"The school should remain if there is a need. Students are paramount and we promise that no child will be left behind," said Zhang.