Expanding to Say “Yes”: The Ongoing Work of The Citizens Foundation in Pakistan (Part 1 of 2)

This week, we share part 1 of a 2-part post on the organization, TCF.


An “Over-Ambitious Goal”

In the early 1990’s, Karachi, Pakistan faced many problems. These issues included high levels of political violence and instability. Aiming to identify and combat these problems, six friends from Karachi joined together and asked “what can we as citizens do to make things better?” They were engineers, architects, and business people who felt frustrated and wanted to discuss systemic answers to Pakistan’s largest struggles. In these discussions, they made lists of a wide-range of problems. Ultimately, though, they determined that education sat at the root of every issue they identified. Schools in Pakistan faced their own issues, ranging from ghost schools to out of school children or routinely absent teachers. Changing schools, and working to change Pakistan on a large scale would be a monumental task, but, from the start, the founders wanted to set an “impossible target.” “If the goal is large enough and big enough,” they said, “that’s really something that people should take seriously.”


With that sentiment, the six friends launched The Citizens Foundation (TCF) in 1995 and immediately set a goal of building 1000 schools in Pakistan. Despite what one described as this “over-ambitious” objective, TCF began methodically, opening five schools. Communities met the schools warmly and attendance and test schools demonstrated early success, which led to recognition and additional funding that enabled TCF to expand across Pakistan. In more than 20 years, TCF has expanded to over 1,500 schools. They have also developed new approaches to developing educational opportunities and moved from a privately funded organization to, in 2016, co-funding and operating government schools at scale in Pakistan.


Early Years

TCF opened its first 5 schools in 1996, which the 6 founders funded with their own money. In building these schools, TCF directly aimed to serve out-of-school children. Out-of-school youth have been and remain one of the largest issues for Pakistan’s education system, with the country still facing the second largest population of out-of-school children in the world. Over decades, the Pakistani government has expanded one- and two-room schools to reach these students, but those schools struggle to deliver quality education. Rather than compete with these government schools, TCF chose to build spacious, purpose-built schools in neighborhoods where no other schooling options existed.

TCF identified areas in Karachi with a large number of out-of-school children and constructed school buildings directly in those neighborhoods. Though many of these neighborhoods had limited electricity, water, and sanitation, TCF did not want to build “poor schools for poor children.” Building on the background and expertise of one of the founders who was an architect, the organization had the ambition to build schools that would become recognizable landmarks in the community. Nadia Naviwala, an advisor to TCF today, describes these designs as taking into account “what a child feels like when they walk into a space. The architects wanted the children to feel that the schools were made for them.” Early buildings were designed to encourage families to enroll their children in school and to support their continued attendance. The choice to build schools in these neighborhoods, for instance, was later corroborated by research from Harvard LEAPS studies that found children, especially girls, are more likely to attend school if it is walking distance from home. Similarly, TCF found early on that a number of factors, including an all-female staff, can increase girls enrollment in schools. These early lessons also led to figuring ways of recruiting and retaining an all-female staff. For instance, TCF provided transportation to teachers.  TCF still employs an entirely female staff in their schools today. Though their schools are co-educational, the female-only staff has helped increase the number of girls in TCF schools and many of their schools have achieved gender parity. In contrast, by 6th grade, nearly 60% of girls are out of school in Pakistan. Crucially, according to Naviwala, the cost per pupil hovers around $12 per month, with parents making nominal, pay-as-you-can-afford contributions of $1 per month on average and as little as 10 cents for all children in the family.

Soon after opening the initial 5 schools, word spread. People from neighboring areas of Karachi began approaching the founders and asking them to build schools in new areas. Through private funding from individuals, TCF expanded, into neighboring areas in Karachi, and, by 1998, to Punjab as well. Around this time, TCF also opened their first secondary school. These new schools followed the same design principles as the first TCF schools, serving as landmarks in their community, keeping class size small, and holding down costs.

Part of the organization’s expansion in the 1990’s included a greater focus on securing funding internationally. They began by establishing fund-raising chapters in the United Arab Emirates and the UK and have since expanded to a number of other countries including Switzerland and Australia. These chapters helped raise funds for the organization, funds that allowed for constructing new schools and supporting students in multiple provinces in Pakistan. The vision of 1000 no longer seemed overly ambitious.


Expanding Focus

As TCF continued their growth, the organization emerged as a recognizable presence in Pakistan and within the development world. In 2003, the first cohort of students from TCF schools, what TCF calls “Agents of Positive Change,” graduated. TCF also continued expanding, opening in new areas of the country such as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the Taliban has attacked girls’ schools and gunmen shot Malala Yusufzai. These schools followed the initial model TCF developed, including schools built in communities, a focus on out-of-school children, and gender parity. But TCF also began to place even more emphasis on providing pre-service and in-service education for teachers. Simultaneously, TCF developed new programs, including summer camp programs and an adult literacy program for women. These developments reflected the organization’s growth and observed needs within schools and communities.

Then, in 2009, TCF made central leadership changes. The new CEO, Syed Asaad Ayub Ahmad, a longtime supporter of TCF’s work, previously worked for Shell. Though initially only wanting to give money to the organization, he ended up taking on the leadership role and inheriting over 500 schools. As the new CEO took over, reaching the initial goal of 1000 schools was certainly on the horizon, but he noticed that not much was known about each school. From these observations a new question emerged. How would TCF scale their work while ensuring quality education in each school? “It was a daunting challenge to take up but we decided to not compromise on the quality of education. We were committed to our core values to reach out to more remote locations in an effort to make education accessible to more out of school children,” said Asaad.


Animated by this concern, TCF made a renewed commitment to focusing on quality as well as quantity. After an external evaluation from the Aga Khan Foundation, they developed a series of year-to-year exams to assess school quality and set goals for each school. Over time this became a Whole School Index that analyzes and grades every school in the TCF system. The grade is a composite of four interrelated aspects. First, TCF developed a new method for assessing teachers. Teachers take yearly content-based tests in the subject they teach. It is worth noting that in the last four years TCF has seen teacher competency rise by over 20%. Second and relatedly, they developed an assessment for principals in which a member of the head office conducts in-school visits and rates the principal on a rubric based on her leadership abilities (focusing specifically on capacity, achievement, relationships, and passion). Both the school leader assessment and teacher evaluations are linked to salary bonuses. Third, TCF began focusing on student outcomes using an external evaluation (they use an internal exam as well, but it does not contribute to the index). Fourth and finally, they started tracking enrollment more systematically, considering the percentage of available seats in a school that are filled. Again, the composite of these factors, each weighted differently, leads to each school’s grade and contributes to goal setting.

Beyond assessment, TCF developed its own curriculum and provided teachers with structured lesson plans. Over time, though, teachers have developed more freedom and flexibility. Additionally, the organization shifted its in-service professional development to leveraging digital tools in teacher training. Rather than traveling to visit other schools, teachers now gather in a room with training videos focused on areas where tests and observation identify they are struggling. School principals lead the trainings. This move to digitization was complicated by most TCF schools not having electricity. They circumvented the problem by installing an LCD television backed up with battery power and with preloaded videos on a USB. The investment in approaching professional development in this way allowed TCF to centrally create resources and share them more readily than if facilitators had to travel to each school site. Developments like these became possible as the head office grew and developed the capacity to create and develop and disseminate products across schools. Recognizing that women in rural areas increasingly have smartphones, TCF has set up a service on WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and SMS so that teachers can simply send text messages with questions or issues with their content area and receive a video in response automatically. “Training our teachers is critical in providing quality education at TCF schools. For the first time, TCF has leveraged technology to conduct more effective training,” said Riaz Kamlani, VP Outcomes.

The growing capacity of TCF also enabled them to develop their own textbooks. Naviwala sees this development as crucial to figuring out a language policy that in turn was central to improving school quality. With their own textbooks developed by content area specialists, TCF no longer had to rely on a mix of government textbooks in Urdu supplemented by Oxford University books in English. Furthermore, they could make Urdu their central medium of instruction in Urdu. TCF is now moving to mother tongue, with an in-house research team, led by an Acumen Fellow, that is exploring how to develop a curriculum that moves a child from her mother tongue (Dhatki) to the regional language (Sindhi) to the national language (Urdu) and finally to English.

Along with these shifts, TCF continued expanding, even opening its first “college” for the equivalent of 11th and 12th grades, aimed at increasing the numbers of TCF graduates who make it into top-tier universities. TCF became even more recognizable on the international stage with recognition from the Clinton Global Initiative, Skoll Foundation, Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, UN Girls Education Initiative, and UNESCO. Throughout their work, TCF maintained a general focus on the same issues and the same broad approach to the problem: private funding and expanding its model. They kept expanding, but said ‘no’ many times along the way as they continued on the same trajectory. That is, even as they expanded, they were routinely approached by government and private donors with related opportunities to expand in new directions. Hoping to stay focused on their initial objectives, they initially maintained a policy of saying no to these opportunities.


The organization also wishes to share a call to action: You can help change a life by educating the less privileged children in Pakistan and give them a chance to become moderate, enlightened and productive members of the society. Please follow this link to donate:  https://link.tcf.org.pk/2vtwngN

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