A Williamsburg charter school that tried to attract white and middle-class families needs to find more students in the next week, or it could be shut down. Citizens of the World 1, part of a California-based charter-school chain, opened across from Brooklyn's McCarren Park in September expecting 107 kindergartners and first-graders to totter through the doors.
But on the first day of school, teachers welcomed only 56 students. After the last bus arrived, administrators made call after call to families who had signed up. They ruled out logistical hiccups and realized that more students just weren't coming.

Sharon Hambright, center, has paperwork in hand to enroll son Dillon in Citizens of the World 1 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; Maribel Martinez is the charter school's office manager. Keith Bedford for The Wall Street Journal

"Everyone was disappointed," said Mark Comanducci, executive director of Citizens of the World Charter Schools-New York, which opened two New York schools this fall. "Families we had been talking to for days, or weeks, or months decided to go somewhere else."

The school's experience demonstrates that charter schools, which often say parents need more choices, can be stung when parents' decisions don't fall their way. It also bolsters opponents who say that, despite claims of long wait lists and tales of parents craving alternatives, there isn't as much demand for charter schools as supporters say.

The school was put on probation because of low enrollment in October by State University of New York trustees, who oversee some New York charter schools. If Citizens of the World 1 doesn't reach 100 students by Dec. 6, it could be shut down. Alternately, the trustees could accept a slimmed-down version of the school with about 80 students.

That is because when it comes to a school's operations, students equal money. Schools receive funding from the city and the state based on how many students they teach—about $13,500 per head at Citizens of the World 1.

The school said it wanted to reflect the diversity of the neighborhood, which is 55% white, 38% black or Hispanic, and 7% Asian or other, according to the charter school's application. Only 8% of the students in local public schools, however, were white, and 88% were black or Hispanic. It also emphasized project-based academics and said it would offer classes in music, dance, and art.

"We thought they had a really promising design," said Susan Miller Barker, executive director at the SUNY Charter Schools Institute, which evaluates and monitors charter schools for the SUNY trustees.
From the start, the school faced the kind of vehement opposition that marks many fights over charter schools. One group of parents filed a lawsuit in the state Supreme Court in Brooklyn to prevent Citizens of the World 1 from opening its doors, claiming the founders hadn't fully engaged the local community. The suit was dismissed, and the parents are appealing.

Brooke Parker, one of the parents opposing the school, said the new charter would sap students and funding from local district schools, many of which were highly rated by the city.

"Citizens of the World is a poor copy of the elementary schools that we have," said Ms. Parker, who lives in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. She said she and other parents worked before the school opened to fight the school's recruitment efforts.

"We went to farmers markets, we went to wherever we knew they were trying to get parents, and we got there first," she said.
Mr. Comanducci said the low enrollment was probably influenced by Ms. Parker and others in a group called WAGPOPS!, which stands for Williamsburg and Greenpoint Parents: Our Public Schools!, though he called the opposition a "small but vocal minority." New schools have a tough time selling themselves, he said.

"If the school doesn't exist, it's a challenge to get parents to buy into what you're doing," he said.

Ms. Miller Barker said most charter schools, even new ones, meet enrollment targets and she said she couldn't recall another new charter put on probation for falling enrollment.

Now Mr. Comanducci and his staff members have regrouped and tried to build the school anew. The school is close to meeting the target. By Tuesday, there were 94 students enrolled, from as far away as the Rockaway peninsula in Queens.

School officials sent letters home to parents in November telling them about the probation decision and asked them for help finding new students.

Teachers hit the streets, passing out fliers during their off periods.

Sharon Hambright, 42, of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, picked up one of those fliers while walking her 5-year-old son, Dillon, to school. She wasn't happy with her son's charter school, where, she said, they had him tracing the alphabet instead of doing more challenging work.

"I looked at the brochure, and I was all shaky at first, and I said, 'You know what, I'm going to make this move,'" she said. She walked into Citizens of the World 1 on Monday, clutching Dillon's health forms and a laminated birth certificate, and enrolled him in kindergarten.

"Where I'm really concerned at is third grade, when they start getting tested," she said, referring to federally required state tests. "I want him to be ready."

Write to Lisa Fleisher at lisa.fleisher@wsj.com