Rafaela Espinal held her first poolside chat last summer, offering cheese, crackers and apple cider to draw people to hear her pitch.
She keeps a handful of brochures in her purse, and also gives a few to her daughter before she leaves for school each morning. She painted signs on the windows of her Chrysler minivan, turning it into a mobile advertisement.
It is all an effort to build awareness for her product, which is not new, but is in need of an image makeover: a public school in Harlem.
As charter schools have grown around the country, both in number and in popularity, public school principals like Ms. Espinal are being forced to compete for bodies or risk having their schools closed. So among their many challenges, some of these principals, who had never given much thought to attracting students, have been spending considerable time toiling over ways to market their schools. They are revamping school logos, encouraging students and teachers to wear T-shirts emblazoned with the new designs. They emphasize their after-school programs as an alternative to the extended days at many charter schools. A few have worked with professional marketing firms to create sophisticated Web sites and blogs.
Brochures, fliers and open houses have become all but required in New York City neighborhoods like Harlem, where many schools have shown lagging academic performance. Where parents once simply sent their children to the nearby school, they now can enter lotteries for two dozen charters.
“We have to think about selling ourselves all the time, and it takes a concerted effort that none of us have ever done before,” said Ms. Espinal, who is in her first year as principal of Public School 125, also known as the Ralph Bunche School. “We have to get them in the door if we are even going to try to convince them to come here.”
Five years ago, P.S. 125, on West 123rd Street, had more than 460 students. Today, the school, with students in kindergarten through the fifth grade and an A on its last school report card, has fewer than half that, and now shares its building with the Columbia Secondary School, which serves students in grades 6 through 12.
During her open house last week, Ms. Espinal spent more than two hours channeling her enthusiasm to persuade half a dozen parents that P.S. 125 was the best place for their children. She walked quickly and spoke even faster as she led the parents through the school, proudly showing off a building with an ornate auditorium and a spotless gym.
And then there was the functioning pool, where she held the chat last summer. Few other public schools in Manhattan have one, she boasted.
Parents oohed and ahhed at the pool and ran through dozens of questions about which reading program the school used, how often students used the science lab and which students used the gym on rainy days. Several counted the children in each classroom and smiled contentedly when they did not get to 20.
“That’s key,” said Shoshana Haulley, whose 4-year-old son will enter kindergarten next year. After the tour, Ms. Haulley said she was impressed with Ms. Espinal’s assertiveness but was unsure where she would send her son.
Officials at Alain L. Locke Elementary School, on West 111th Street, spent months with a marketing firm, which worked free of charge to develop a blog and Web site to keep parents up to date. Since 2005, enrollment at the school has dropped by more than 25 percent, but has stabilized this year.
“Sometimes it’s just a matter of sharing what’s happening,” said Susan M. Green, the principal of the school. Like other school leaders in Harlem, Ms. Green said sometimes parents were “pleasantly surprised” when they visited open houses, which the schools now routinely hold.
River East Elementary, on East 120th Street, draws students throughout Harlem and typically has more applicants than seats. But at this time of year, staff members spend hours scurrying to day care centers, churches and apartment complexes to find prospective parents, said Katie Smith, the assistant principal. “We have to be out there constantly representing ourselves,” Ms. Smith said.
Keeping the classrooms full is not just a matter of pride. Dwindling enrollment is one of the criteria that the schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, uses when deciding which schools to close, saying that it shows parents are “voting with their feet.”
The prospect of being shut down has left educators in Harlem’s public schools anxious. Teachers from closed schools keep their salaries even if they cannot find new positions, though Mr. Klein has been seeking the power to lay them off after a certain time. In some cases, principals and other administrators can lose their jobs or be pushed out of the system.
Last year, the Education Department moved to shut down Public School 241 and replace it with a charter school run by the Harlem Success Academy network, but backed off after the teachers’ union filed a lawsuit. Still, Mr. Klein sent a letter home to parents at the school, encouraging them to “seriously consider” applying to Harlem Success, which now shares the building with P.S. 241.
This fall, 232 students enrolled at the traditional school, a drop from 299 the year before.
For most schools, the marketing amounts to less than $500, raised by parents and teachers to print up full color postcards or brochures. Typically, principals rely on staff members with a creative bent to draw up whatever they can.
Student recruitment has always been necessary for charter schools, which are privately run but receive public money based on their enrollment, supplemented by whatever private donations they can corral.
The Harlem Success Academy network, run by the former City Council member Eva Moskowitz, is widely regarded, with admiration by some and scorn by others, as having the biggest marketing effort. Their bright orange advertisements pepper the bus stops in the neighborhood, and prospective parents receive full color mailings almost monthly.
Ms. Moskowitz said the extensive outreach was necessary to make sure they were drawing from a broad spectrum of parents. Ms. Moskowitz said they spent roughly $90 per applicant for recruitment. With about 3,600 applicants last year for the four schools in the network, she said, the total amounted to $325,000.
As another example of the buzz that public schools are up against, the Oscars broadcast on Sunday night included a 60-second American Express advertisement featuring Harlem Children’s Zone, which runs two charter schools.
The regular schools are contending, most of all, with a perception that charter schools deliver a superior education. Many of Harlem’s regular schools, like its charter schools, received A’s last year from the city for showing progress on standardized tests. But, in general, they tend to have lower passing rates.
Even Ms. Green, of Alain Locke Elementary, said there was only so much a school could do to increase enrollment. “For me there are variables you can control and some that you can’t,” she said. “Our job is catering to the needs of the children who are here.”
Karen Zraick contributed reporting.