OSASCO, BRAZIL - Flavia Witzel, 28, a kindergarten teacher, had been educated at the Bradesco school. (Juan Forero /WASHINGTON POST)

— This country prides itself on being a rising economic power, ever more a player in global commerce.

But many Brazilians question whether the lackluster public education system, which struggles to educate 50 million children, can churn out enough well-prepared young adults so that Brazil can continue to compete with the likes of China and South Korea.

So when Heloiza Silveira heard about openings at a local academy, tuition-free, she got in line at 3 a.m. with a gaggle of hopeful parents and won a coveted spot for her boy, Rafael, 5.

The school is run by the philanthropic arm of Brazil’s second-largest bank, Bradesco, which had offered 100 slots to the neediest families here in Osasco, an industrial suburb of Sao Paulo.

“I think he now has a future,” Silveira said, giggling with delight as she recalled her boy’s admission in January.

OSASCO, BRAZIL - In a modern science lab at the Bradesco school, Antonio Ghilard taught eighth graders how to tell the differences between chemical and physical reactions. (Juan Forero /WASHINGTON POST)

All across Brazil, companies and their foundations, among them Bradesco, are running schools, developing new teaching methodologies or improving school management.

Those offering a complete education for free have limited slots and financing, their offerings amounting to a “drop in the ocean” in terms of Brazil’s educational needs, as an Education Ministry spokeswoman put it.

But for many parents, the growing involvement of industry in education is a hopeful sign, one that is revealing in what it says about the state of public education in Brazil.

Although a 2007 Harvard University study found that some programs were hard to assess and, in some cases, wasteful, the broad scope of private involvement in education is gaining attention as Brazilians become increasingly conscious of the need to improve classroom instruction.

The companies taking the lead are among the motors of Brazil’s economy.

There is the steel maker Gerdau, the meatpacker JBS and the aircraft manufacturer Embraer, which runs a high school for 600 students. There are also smaller firms. Porto Seguro, an insurance company, adopted two public schools and improved their management.

“I would say thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of companies are involved,” said Fernando Rossetti, who directs a group of foundations and companies that run educational programs. “Brazil, as it globalizes and its economy becomes more sophisticated, needs a much more educated labor force.”

Priscila Cruz, director of All For Education, a Sao Paulo policy group, said the initiatives by the companies, estimated at $1 billion a year, underscore “a silent crisis in education here in Brazil.”

Some of the statistics collected by her organization are grim: Only 58 percent of children finish high school. Of those finishing high school, only 25 percent have learned what they should have in Portuguese-language studies. For math, it is even worse: 11 percent.

Brazilian students came out at the bottom in reading, math and science when their scores were compared with those of children in 65 other countries, according to the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment.

But there are some improvements.

Enrollment has shot up over the past 15 years. The Education Ministry’s budget has more than tripled since 2003. And although student test scores are low, they have been improving rapidly, says the government, which believes standards can reach those of European and Asian countries in a decade.

But the reality, some experts say, is that it could take far longer.

Denise Aguiar, director of the Bradesco Foundation, said this continent-size country of 190 million cannot be compared with Finland or South Korea, leaders in public education. It has to educate children in the vast Amazon, as well as in tough urban neighborhoods and isolated farming hamlets.

And she said that Brazil is essentially decades behind a country whose educational system she has studied, the United States.

“Working in education in Brazil is not that easy,” said Aguiar, who has a master’s degree in early childhood education from New York University. “Reforming education is very slow.”

In 1962, Aguiar’s grandfather, Amador Aguiar, founder of the Bradesco Bank, started the first school for the poor. Although he had only had a fourth-grade education, he “knew education was the most important thing a person could have,” Denise Aguiar said.

Today, the Bradesco Foundation runs 40 schools and educates more than 51,000 students from kindergarten through high school, more than in Washington’s public school system and the largest program of its kind in Brazil. Its gleaming modern schools boast science labs, libraries and well-appointed classrooms, and its students attend for free, receiving books, supplies, meals and uniforms.

It is in the training of teachers, though, where Bradesco has placed most of its emphasis.

Teachers undergo constant training, are encouraged to spend time researching and earn 50 percent more than their public school counterparts. Aguiar wants its teachers to allow children to progress at their own pace, with the goal of ensuring all children can read by age 7.

Among those who can attest to the bounties of the new environment is Marcelo Amaral, 34, a math teacher.

Before coming here to the Bradesco school in Osasco, he had to work in the mornings at a city school, in the afternoons at a school run by Sao Paulo state and at night in a private academy. “I worked 70 hours a week,” he explained, saying it was the only way to make ends meet.

Now, he explained, he earns more at the Bradesco school and has plenty of time for research and to prepare for his classes.

On a recent day, the school was a whirlwind of activity. Guilherme Lima, 14, worked on the robot he hopes to enter into competitions. Giovana Silva, 13, finished a summary of the book she read in English. And in a modern science lab, Antonio Ghilard taught eighth-graders how to tell the differences between chemical and physical reactions.

Of all the teachers, perhaps Flavia Witzel, 28, knew the Bradesco system best. She had been educated here. Now she was back, working with 5-year-olds, their classroom filled with new toys and building blocks and books.

“The same way this transformed my life,” she said, “today I feel like I need to help transform the lives of these children.”