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Principals in Harlem are adapting to heightened competition

Harlem’s school choice wars reached a new height this spring when the Department of Education moved to replace PS 194 and PS 241, zoned elementary schools, with charter schools, saying that local families were electing not to enroll at the zoned schools anyway. A lawsuit stymied that change, but the battle raged on — and is set to continue on Thursday night with a televised showdown between charter school operator Eva Moskowitz and union president Randi Weingarten.

Now, principals on the sidelines are learning from watching the fight, according to a report by a Columbia University journalism student. Kyla Calvert, one of the students behind the Web site about the Department of Education’s no-bid contracts, just published a report on a class Web site about how principals and parents are responding to increased competition among schools. From Calvert’s article:

I agree with the philosophy that competition breeds excellence, said Charles DeBerry, principal of P.S. 76, a school with about 370 students in Kindergarten through sixth grade. But color copies are expensive. One of these costs me $.25, DeBerry said, holding up a simple brochure created by some of his staff members. I look at the things the charter schools are sending out and there’s just no way I can compete with them.

The number of kindergartners at PS 76 is down by a third this year, DeBerry told Calvert. Because only four children zoned for his school enrolled in a charter school this fall, DeBerry speculated that students who used to attend come to PS 76 from outside its zone are now enrolling in charter schools instead. The shift in attendance patterns has caused him to change the way he thinks about student enrollment, DeBerry said:

I have opened my eyes to the things we need to do to stay in business and offer services to kids, DeBerry said. We have to advertise. If we do not recruit kids and allow our registration to dwindle it will be seen as parents not electing to send their kids here. That was a lesson learned after the events at P.S. 241 for me.