In BrickUnderground's parents guide to buying and renting in NYC,  we covered the real estate basics for finding an appropriate place to dwell with kids. Now we're taking a closer look on the one issue (besides price) that may influence a young parent's real estate decision more than any other: Elementary school options.

Whether you're looking to rent or buy--and whether you have young children now, expect to in the next few years, or just want to make sure you buy a place that will be in demand by families when you sell--read on for advice from the experts about how to navigate public and private school choices.

Public school options

While most NYC kids who attend public elementary schools go to their zoned schools, these days there are lots of additional choices available, ranging from charter schools to magnet schools to gifted and talented programs. The Department of Ed's website describes it all in great detail; another solid resource is Insideschools.org.

To keep your options open, apply to several different schools for your child. Historically parents of kindergarteners have needed to apply to each school directly (and yes, you must actually apply in advance to your zoned school--you can't just show up on the first day of school to register your child like you can in other parts of the country). It is possible this procedure will change for admission in 2014, so make sure you stay informed of any changes. 

1. Pre-kindergarten

Some (but not all) public schools offer pre-K programs for 4-year-olds (some are half-day, some are full-day programs). There's a single pre-kindergarten application for the entire city, and parents get to list up to 12. Applications for September enrollment are due in April of that year (this year, it was April 5th).

Unlike kindergarten and higher grades, children are not guaranteed a spot in pre-K. Admission is based on lottery and the programs are (unsurprisingly) difficult to get into given how few spots are available. It's worth noting that even schools with less-than-stellar elementary schools tend to have pretty good pre-K programs, says education consultant Robin Aronow, founder of School Search NYC, who helps guide NYC parents through the schools process.

There are also dozens of community-based organizations that offer free pre-K programs (Check out a directory here).

2. Zoned schools

What is a zoned school?

Districts are comprised of school "zones" (sometimes referred to "catchments"). There are 32 school districts in the five boroughs and hundreds of zones.

Check out which school your current apartment (or the apartment you're interested in) is zoned for on the Department of Education (DOE) website or calling 311. (StreetEasy.com also includes that information with listings, but be careful with all of these resources, since information can be outdated.)

The safest bet--and the final call you must make before signing a lease or contract of sale--is to call the school you think you're zoned for, as they'll have a database of all the addresses zoned for it.

Once you've found out your zoned school, visit the DOE site to find progress reports and learn more. 

Progress report grades, which are graded from A to F, take into account the last year's scores on statewide ELA (English-Language Arts) and math tests, progress on these tests from the previous year and the learning environment of the school (ie. satisfaction with the school) based on surveys completed by faculty and parents.

Progress reports should be considered only one variable in evaluating a school.

The grades are given based on a comparison to peer schools, which are similar in percentage of students with IEPs (individual education programs for children with disabilities), ELLs (English-language learners) and those entitled to free lunch. So a highly respected school compared to other highly respected peer schools may get a C or D, while poorer performing schools may get As and Bs based on comparison to other schools.

Also, note that if a school is new and does not yet have standardized test scores, which start in third grade, the school will not have a progress report grade.

Where are the "good" zoned schools?

Aronow suggests searching through InsideSchools.org's "noteworthy" schools to get a sense of which neighborhoods have strong schools (the site has reviews on all schools, with real specifics--like rodent problems, etc.).

There's no shortage of good schools in Manhattan, Aronow says, specifically on the Upper East Side, Upper West Side, the Village, Midtown East and TriBeCa. That said, "some of the schools in those neighborhoods are at capacity. There are also up-and-coming zones like Chelsea. Washington Heights schools are slowly turning around, and there are several choice [a.k.a unzoned] schools," says Aronow.

Clara Hemphill of InsideSchools says: "The ones everyone’s heard of"--such as PS 6 on the Upper East Side, PS 87 on the Upper West Side and PS 234 in TriBeCa--"are great schools but are also in fantastically expensive neighborhoods. I try to steer toward schools like PS 180 in Harlem, PS 110 in Williamsburg."

Hemphill singles out Williamsburg as one neighborhood with a lot of growth, including Brooklyn Arbor (PS 414).

"If you want good solid schools," says Hemphill, another area to look is District 26 in Queens, which is the Bayside area. "Those are solid, vanilla schools."

However, Hemphill adds, "Schools can change drastically in a few years."

Getting in to your zoned school

Historically--and despite a certain amount of parental hysteria--"almost everyone has gotten into their zoned school by the start of school in September," says Aronow.

If due to overcrowding, a child cannot be accommodated in their zoned school,  the Department of Education will reassign a child to another neighborhood school generally in June, though the child will remain on the waitlist for his/her zoned school until October. 

"Usually things tend to open up in first grade," says Aronow. "The biggest crunch tends to be in kindergarten, where class size is capped at 25. Class size can increase in first grade."

You can apply to schools out of zone or even district, but chances are unlikely of getting seats in these schools, particularly in the super popular schools (like the Upper East Side's PS 6 and the Upper West Side's PS 87).

The Department of Education will only release out-of-zone seats when it is fairly confident seats will still be available in September after all zoned applicants have registered. However, you can check back with the parent coordinator--whose job it is to handle admissions, liaise with parents and answer questions--at the school if you are willing to wait.

Exceptions are District 1 on the Lower East Side, District 7 in the Bronx and District 23 in Brooklyn, where all schools are so-called "choice" schools (see next section below).

Important: If you eventually decide to move out of your zone, your child won't be required to switch schools.

"Once your child starts at a school, they remain in the duration of the school as long as they get to school and get picked up on time," says Aronow.

Parents, in fact, have been known to rent apartments in expensively-priced neighborhoods with good zoned schools for a year or two, and then move to a more affordable neighborhood while keeping their child in the original school.

One catch is that if you move zones, your child's younger sibling(s) won't get first priority, though they will have priority over those outside the district.

Note that schools can and do check that there was no false representation--and that you did in fact live in the zone when your child started. "Especially if they’ve been tipped off," Aronow says

Zoning changes ahead

The unfortunate news for New York City parents is that even once you've secured an apartment in the right zone, things can change.

"Nothing's guaranteed," Aronow says, and redistricting usually happens in November or December of the year before school starts. (The good news is that only incoming students are affected by rezoning; current students are safe).

One preemptive strategy against possible zoning changes, says Aronow, is to "try to live on the same block as the school, because they’re probably not going to zone that out."

District 2, which runs from West 59th Street to 97th Street on the Upper East Side and also includes TriBeCa, Gramercy Park, Soho, and the West Village have undergone rezoning for 2013 thanks to a new school in Midtown East (PS 281). The schools that will be affected are PS 116, PS 267 and PS 59.  A new school is going up in the West Village that is expected to change zoning in PS 40, PS 3 and PS 41 for September 2014. 

(For the most up-to-date information on District 2's rezoning, look at the website for the Community Educational Council of District 2.)

Joyce Szuflita of NYC School Help, who's an expert on Brooklyn schools, says that the District 15 Community Education Council (which comprises Carroll Gardens, most of Park Slope, Red Hook and Sunset Park and other neighborhoods) may consider some changes to the PS 58/PS 32 border in 2014, which would affect Carroll Gardens.

Szuflita also points to a new school building in Kensington, where they’ve broken ground.

"It's slated to open in Fall 2015 and we have no idea whether there will be rezoning, or it’ll become school choice," says Szuflita. 

3. "Choice" schools (a.k.a. unzoned schools)

Choice schools--meaning those that parents "choose" and are not zoned for--tend to be more progressive. There are "citywide" general education choice schools, to which any child may apply, and "district" choice schools, which give preference to those who live in the district. Usually admission is offered via lottery and the schools.

Some citywide choice-school examples are Central Park East I and Central Park East II in East Harlem (which are both elementary schools) and Ella Baker on the Upper East Side (pre-K through Eighth Grade).

Some district examples of choice schools include TriBeCa Learning Center and Midtown West in District 2, Manhattan School for Children in District 3, Teachers College Community School in Districts 5 and 6 and Hamilton Heights, Washington Heights, Muscota, Amistad, 21st Century Academy and Castle Bridge School in District 6.

4. Magnet schools

These schools are designed to foster racial integration and receive federal or state funding for special programs (such as science, technology or art), so they often have superior resources. Call your district office to find out if there are any magnet programs in your district. You'll have to live in the district, but if you're not zoned for a particular magnet school, you can enter a lottery for a space.

5. Charter schools

Charter schools are public schools that operate independently of the local districts under a "charter" from the state Board of Regents or the State University of New York (SUNY). 

Charter schools tend to have high standards for academic achievement and behavior and many boast impressive standardized testing results, though some critics have questioned their record retaining children with special needs or ELL and and their being offered space in public school buildings.

Admission is by lottery, but preference is given to kids in the district. A particular demographic may get priority. Applications are available on the New York City Charter School Center website or at the individual schools. 

6. Department of Education Gifted & Talented programs

Starting in October of the year prior to starting school, parents must request to have their child tested to be considered for a G&T program (deadline is usually in November).

Admission is dependent on the combined results of the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test and the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (NNAT), which are administered to applicants in the January prior to starting school.

The NNAT relies less on language and can be harder to prepare for. Sample tests are available here.

There are both citywide G&T programs (Anderson, Nest+M, TAG, STEM, BSI), which requite a score of 97 percent or higher, and district programs, which require a score of 90 percent or higher to be eligible.

Historically, test results have been available in mid-April and placements made in May.

Some parents will hire private tutors, such as Bright Kids NYC or Aristotle Circle, months in advance of the test (expect to pay around $1,000 for those). TestingMom.com is a cheaper option and offers downloadable practice questions for parents to review with their kids. At the least, parents are urged to practice colors, shapes and numbers with their kids in advance.

7. City University of New York Gifted & Talented programs

Hunter College Elementary School is a storied gifted K-12 program (jackpot!), which is administered under the auspices of Hunter College and CUNY. It has a separate application process and students must take the Stanford-Binet IQ exam. The cutoff in previous years has been the 99th percentile.

The elementary school (K-6) is open for Manhattan residents only, but 7th-12th grade opens up for students across the city.

Entry points are Kindergarten and 7th grade only. Information on applying will be available on its website in mid-August.

8. Sleeper schools and other expert recommendations

Aronow suggests considering new schools. Many parents, she says, are hesitant to try them out, but they often have new facilities and dynamic staff.

Szuflita agrees: "The ones to watch are schools like Brooklyn Arbor in Willamsburg and PS 705 in Prospect Heights. There's also the New American Academy, which is an unzoned school in the Crown Heights area and PS 705 in Prospect Heights."

Public school timeline and deadlines

Public school students must turn five by December 31 of the year they start kindergarten (meaning they can start school before they turn 5). And that's just the first date/deadline to keep in mind.

Schools offer tours from November through March, so that's a good time to get first-hand knowledge of what a school is like. 

For pre-Kindergarten, parents apply between March and the beginning of April. Offers are made in June.

The application process for zoned and unzoned kindergartens begins in January and ends March 1. Parents find out results in early April.

Public schools don't have interviews, per se, though Special Music School has a music evaluation and Hunter has an evaluation for kids who make it to the second round of the process.

Each charter school sets its own application deadline, but most require that applications be in before April 1. Some schools have earlier deadlines, so inquire with individual schools.

Those interested in having their child tested for the Gifted and Talented programs have to request the test taking by October.Testing takes place in January and parents find out results in April.

Confused yet? On May 21, Aronow will run a workshop that will offer an overview of the public school admissions process to go over all of this and more.

Private schools

While there will always be parents who choose private school for bragging rights, parents go the private route for many different reasons--for religious focuses, better facilities, smaller class size and extras like musical instrument instruction for every kid, which they're less likely to find in public school.

1. Neighborhoods

The Upper East Side has the largest concentration of private schools in the city, and it's home to most of the single-sex schools (with the exception of Collegiate, an all-boys school on the Upper West Side).

The Upper West Side has second largest concentration.

2. Old school vs. new wave

Some new private schools have opened up to accommodate the growing number of families in the city, and many focus on multi-cultural and multi-lingual learning. Examples include Avenues, in the Flatiron district, where kids learn Mandarin; Speyer Legacy on the Upper West Side, which is a school for gifted students; the World Class Learning Academy on the Lower East Side; and the International School of Brooklyn.

3. Age cutoff

Some private schools offer pre-K programs, some offer preschool for three-year-olds and a very select few offer programs for two-year-olds. Once your child's been accepted into an ongoing school's preschool, they don't need to apply again for kindergarten.

Unlike public schools--where kindergarteners can start when they're four as long as they turn five by the end of the calendar year--the majority of private schools require that kindergarteners be 5 years old by September 1.

"The schools want to be sure that the child is socially and emotionally ready for kindergarten," says Gina Malin, director of school advisory services at the Parents League of New York, a non-profit organization focusing on independent schools.

"Kindergartens have changed--days are longer and they're asking kids to do a lot more than in years past. Curriculum is more advanced," Malin says.

On the downside, this means that if your child's birthday is in the fall, you'll be paying for one more year of pre-school.

4. Deadlines

The private school admissions process starts the September before your child enters kindergarten. Malin suggests parents start doing their research during the spring before that. 

In addition to the Parents League website, many parents rely on the "Manhattan Family Guide to Private Schools and Selective Public Schools" by Victoria Goldman and Catherine Hausman (Goldman also penned the  "Manhattan Directory of Private Nursery Schools.") The Independent Schools Association of Greater New York (ISAAGNY) has a comprehensive website and puts out a directory as well. Other websites that might be worth checking out are: NYSAIS.org (The New York State Association of Independent Schools) and NAIS.org (The National Association of Independent Schools). All individual schools have their own websites, too.

Applications go online in August or September, but are not processed until after Labor Day. Acceptance letters go out in February and you usually have a week to accept or decline.

Since the private school notification is so much earlier than public school, some parents who are hoping to get into a certain public school will put down a non-refundable deposit (usually between $3,000-$5,000) at the private school as a back-up.

Though that's not advisable, Malin suggests that anyone who plans to do this read the private school contract carefully to make sure they are not responsible for the first tuition payment or even the full year's tuition.

The Parents League recommends parents apply to eight schools to be safe.

5. Tuition

For kindergarten, tuition usually ranges between $35k-$40k, Malin says. Upper school tuition is sometimes a few thousand dollars more, but many ongoing schools have adopted a policy to keep tuition the same across all the grades.

6. The application process

The majority of schools require the ECAA (Early Childhood Admissions Assesment test), which is a standardized admission test taken at age 4. There is a lot of test prep going on out there, but the Parents League advises against it. 

"First of all, it alters the value of the test, and won't accurately test the child's readiness. That can lead a child to be in a school that's not an appropriate fit," says Malin. She adds that it causes undue anxiety for a preschooler.

All the schools have some sort of interview--usually a group or individualized tour is followed by an interview with the parents. Kids are also asked to come in--usually in a small group of kids, but individual interviews are possible too. "Usually a family will have two-to-three visits to the school before admissions," Malin said.

7. The who-you-know factor

Many schools give preference to "legacies" (children of former students), but schools define legacies differently. Some only include parents, some include grandparents, aunts and uncles. While siblings almost always have a better shot of getting in, that's not always guaranteed either, Malin says.

Connections don't hurt, but they do not guarantee admission to a school, Malin says. And in order to make the process fair, most schools don't require letters of recommendations.

"Admissions directors don't want lots and lots of letters from various connected people," says Malin."Especially if they don't know the family well. That can be a red flag that the parents are trying to hard and not well-suited on their own."

8. Financial Aid

Private school does not come cheap in New York City, so it's no surprise that many parents inquire about financial aid.

Malin stresses that parents should not be afraid to ask about the levels of aid available, and that with the exception of some nursery schools, it's available at all private schools.

"Most schools have really generous financial aid packages," she says. "It really varies from school to school, depending on their budget and endowment. Some offer partial aid, some offer full."

Talk to admission officers and financial aid officers--there's usually someone in the admissions or business office who deals solely with this issue. Sometimes, though, the admissions officer and financial aid officer are the same. 

While private school admissions decisions are rarely "need-blind," they are "need-sensitive," Malin says, meaning that admission for students requiring financial aid will depend on the family's need and the financial aid budget of the school. Most often it does not affect admission, but in some cases it may.

Financial aid is based on many factors, including income, how many children you have, outstanding debt like student loans, costs of caring for an elderly person, etc.  Many schools ask parents fill out an applications through websites like SSSTADS or FAST. Those services take all of the above issues into account and generate a number, and the schools use that as a guideline, and they do their own work from that.

"Just like when you’re doing your taxes, being organized is really important," Malin says. You'll need to gather a lot of forms and be aware of all of the deadlines.  

Sometimes accepted students can be added to a financial aid waitlist.

9. Misconceptions

"People may not know that private schools are diverse--both socio-economically and culturally," says Malin."They're working hard to develop that."

"We also have a wide array of independent schools in the city--Montessori, progressive, traditional, special needs schools, bilingual, British schools, Waldorf schools. There are lots of philosophies," Malin says. 

Related posts:

First-choice apartment, second-choice school? Robin Aronow can help.

To raise a family in NYC, you need a master's in real estate

"It is now torture to live near a school"

Can you raise a family in Manhattan on $400K a year?

A good school zone or free childcare: That is the question

Plan B: Where to rent if your kid doesn't get into private school

Note: BrickUnderground articles occasionally include Featured Partners and Resource Directory members when their expertise is relevant to the story.