Three years ago, Bushra Nasim left her public school in Karachi and switched to a private school with low tuition.
She didn't like how teachers treated her and classmates.
“There was a physical and verbal abuse and now it doesn't happen here anymore,” she said through a translator.
That's because new managers run her campus, called the Pakistani Railway School.
A nonprofit known as The Citizens Foundation, or TCF, took it over from the government last year. Now dozens of students are coming back, like Bushra. She’s ready for eighth grade, dressed in her sky-blue uniform with a cream shawl across her shoulders.
Bushra said that she was excited to return because of new course books and polite teachers. Her father was so excited about the new management from TCF that he also enrolled three of her six siblings.
Some of the nonprofits also operate their own schools and collect donations around the world – including more than $1 million a year from Houston.
But with the government schools, they take over management and often replace or retrain teachers. Some have long waiting lists or lotteries to win a seat.
If this sounds like charter schools in the United States — where independent management groups operate public schools — it's because it's fairly similar. One difference is that U.S. charters are free. The Pakistani groups can charge a nominal tuition, such as a couple of dollars or less per month.
“They have more experience,” said Fazlullah Pechucho, the Education Secretary in the Sindh province. He said he’s eager to partner.
“A lot of elements are being executed with the EMOS, education management organizers, who are the private partners,” he said.
Groups like TCF are also excited because they see a faster route to improve both the quality and access to education in Pakistan, a country with a booming population and a dismal public education system. TCF’s strategic director said that adopting a public school and revamping the building saves them time and money, instead of building a new brick-and-mortar campus from scratch.
“If we are getting decent per child subsidy, which would cover our costs, we can go into thousands,” said Isfandyar Inayat Sher Khan, who directs strategic development at TCF headquarters in Karachi.
Others see limitations to this model of reform.
“There is no solution to Pakistan's education crisis without dramatic improvements to the state of government schools,” said Mosharraf Zaidi, who leads the advocacy group Alif Ailaan in Islamabad.
In Pakistan, many public schools are understaffed and underfunded. Teachers may not show up. Buildings are often in disrepair. Zaidi said that he believes reform includes nonprofits like TCF, religious schools and others, but that the entire system needs a boost.
“It's just that a coherent, successful modern society, the backbone of that society has to be the government school,” Zaidi explained. “The free education that is going to be the difference between being average and being phenomenal.”
That's why there's another strategy at play at the Fatimah Jinnah Government School in Karachi. Here seventh grade girls compete in dodge ball in the courtyard.
The Zindagi Trust adopted the girls-only school nine years ago. It offers chess, soccer, a library and art classes. The trust has invested almost 100 million Pakistani rupees in the school, including upgrades to the campus so drinking water didn’t mix with sewage lines.
The trust's director Shehzad Roy calls it a success for other reasons.
“The most important thing why we're turning around government schools is (to) change the system,” he said.
Roy is a Pakistani pop singer turned activist. He said that the campus acts as a model to change education laws. So far, he counts half a dozen reforms. They include a ban on corporal punishment and allowing non-government textbooks in the classroom.
“And as an institution yes, the school is doing really well. But more importantly, are we impacting the system or not,” Roy said.
He said that in Pakistan more than 20 million children don't attend school at all.