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The buyer's and renter's guide to the NYC elementary school game

PS 11 in Chelsea has a gifted and talented program and is an Inside Schools staff pick.

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In Brick Underground's parents guide to buying and renting in NYC,  we covered the ins and outs of finding an appropriate place to live with kids. Now we're taking a closer look at the one issue besides price that may influence a parent of young children'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 education experts about how to navigate public and private school choices.

[Editor's note: This story was originally published in 2013, and was updated in 2015 and 2017.]

Public school options

Most New York City kids who attend public elementary schools go to their zoned schools, however there are lots of additional choices available, including charter schools, magnet schools, and gifted and talented programs. The city Department of Education website describes it all in great detail.

Another solid resource is Insideschools.org, which offers pros and cons, descriptions, and user comments about each school.

To keep your options open, apply to several different schools (you fill out one application for kindergarten, but can apply to up to 12 schools). Even if you choose to go with your zoned school, you must actually apply. While you technically could walk in on the first day of school and register, you run the risk of it being full, in which case you'd be assigned to another school. So it's best to apply in the spring, before your child starts school.

To find out whether there's likely to be a waitlist (in overcrowded areas there can be), reach out to the school's parent coordinator. Every school has one, and their contact info is typically listed on the school's website. An important note: when the Department of Education discusses the number of children on a waitlist, it is referring to the number of zoned students, not all those waiting for a spot. (For example, you could be told there are 28 students on the waitlist, when there is a randomized list of 300 students not in the zone hoping for placement.)

1. Prekindergarten

One of Mayor de Blasio's first initiatives was free pre-K for all, and all four-year-olds in the city are now guaranteed a spot. (The city has also started rolling out "three-K" programs in the South Bronx, Brownsville, East New York and Ocean Hill, with the goal of expanding the program citywide.)

Not all public schools offer pre-K programs, so you may have to travel out of your area to go. Many also have limited space. In response, the city has opened may "pre-K Centers," which offer comparable pre-K education programs. In fact, the pre-K center K280 School of Journeys in Windsor Terrace is considered by many to be the model for the program.  Pre-Ks are zoned by district, so you can apply to go to any pre-K in your district, but keep in mind that kids aren't eligible for school buses until they're five years or older. You can also apply to a pre-K outside your district, but everyone else applying in that district will be given priority.

There's a single prekindergarten application for the entire city, and parents get to list up to a dozen. Applications for September enrollment are due in April of that year. 

Worth noting: Even schools with less-than-stellar elementary schools tend to have pretty good pre-K programs, according to education consultant Robin Aronow, founder of School Search NYC, who helps guide NYC parents through the schools process.

An important caveat: just because your child attends a pre-K program at a school does not mean they are automatically enrolled in that school's kindergarten. Kindergarten involves a separate application process.  

2. Zoned schools

School districts are comprised of school zones (often referred to as "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 DOE website or by calling 311. Many real estate websites offer school information with listings, but be careful not to rely on them, since information can be outdated or erroneous from the start.

The safest bet—and a must-do piece of due diligence to 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 that fall in its particular catchment. Administrators at the school will also be able to tell you how likely it is that there will be a waitlist and what your chances actually are of getting off it.

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

Progress report grades, which run from A to F, take into account the last year's scores on statewide ELA (English Language Arts) and math tests, improvements 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. Grades are given based on a comparison to peer schools—those with similar percentages 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 another highly respected peer school 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.

A good place to start looking for a "good" zoned school is Inside School's "Staff Picks", which can be found by refining a search on the site. Other categories that can be selected include "Gifted & Talented", "Charter", "Dual Language" and others. The site has reviews on all schools and provides real specifics, including rodent problems and the like.

There's no shortage of high-performing zoned 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 improving zoned schools in Chelsea, Washington Heights schools are slowly turning around, and there are several choice, aka un-zoned schools, Aronow says.

"Some schools are adding an extra kindergarten to deal with the demand and then may collapse to one less first grade, raising class size in first grade, and potentially making fewer first grade seats available," she says.

Clara Hemphill, editor of Inside Schools at the New School's Center for New York City Affairs, 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 [and] PS 110 in Williamsburg."

Hemphill singles out Williamsburg as one neighborhood with a lot of growth, including Brooklyn Arbor (PS 414). If you want  solid schools, Hemphill says, try looking in District 26 in Bayside, Queens. However, she adds, "Schools can change drastically in a few years." District 15 in Brooklyn is also known for its high-performing elementary and middle schools. 

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

If, due to overcrowding, children can't be accommodated in their zoned school,  the DOE will reassign them to another neighborhood school, generally in June, though they will remain on the waitlist for their zoned school until October. 

"Usually things tend to open up in first grade," Aronow says. "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 your zone or even your 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 DOE will only release out-of-zone seats when it's fairly confident they'll 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 and answer questions, if you're able 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," Aronow says.

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 representations on your application, 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 preferred 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.

Last year, a major (and controversial) rezoning in District 3 on the Upper West Side affected three different schools. 

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

3. "Choice" schools (a.k.a. un-zoned schools)

Choice schoolsmeaning, as the name suggests, 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 with new middle 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, Hamilton Heights, Washington Heights, Muscota, Amistad, 21st Century Academy and Castle Bridge School in District 6, and The Children's School and the Brooklyn New School in Brooklyn's District 15. 

4. Magnet schools

These schools are designed to foster diversity and receive federal or state funding for special programs such as science, technology, or art. They are not, Alina Adams of NYC School Secrets warns, gifted and talented schools.

"Most people, if they're moving to New York from somewhere else think these are gifted and talented schools," she says. "They're not."

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. They 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 and 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 (the 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, 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 in the  city's G&T testing booklet. 

There are citywide G&T programs (AndersonNest+MTAGSTEMBSI), which require a score of 97 percent or higher, and district programs, which require a score of 90 percent or higher to be eligible. Should your child qualify for a G&T placement, that does not necessarily mean they will get one, i.e. there are more kids who qualify than spots.

On the Upper West Side alone, over 50 percent of kids qualify for a placement. And because G&T eligibility is on a city- and district-wide basis, living in the zone of a school with a G&T program does not give people priority.

"Anyone in the district has as much a right to one of those seats, even if it is your zoned school," says Adams. 

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 and talented programs

Hunter College Elementary School is a storied gifted K-12 program administered by 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 at the 99th percentile.

The elementary school (K-6) is open for Manhattan residents only, but 7th to 12th grade opens up for students across the city. Entry points are kindergarten and seventh grade only. Applications for the 2018-2019 school year are due November 3rd

8. Sleeper schools and other expert recommendations

Aronow suggests considering new schools. Many parents are hesitant to try them out, she says, but these schools often have newer facilities than their more established peers, plus dynamic, engaged staff.

9. Public school timeline and deadlines

Public school students must turn five by December 31st of the year they start kindergarten (meaning they can start school before they turn five). And that's just the first 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 prekindergarten, parents apply between March and the beginning of April. Offers are made in June.

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

Public schools don't have interviews, per se, though the Special MusicSchool has a music evaluation; Hunter has an assessment 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 1st. Some schools have earlier deadlines, so inquire with individual schools.

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

Private schools

There will always be parents who choose to go private for bragging rights, but other parents pick the private route for many different reasons: religion, better facilities, smaller class size, and extras like musical instrument instruction for every student, a perk parents are not 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 the second largest concentration.

2. Old school vs. new wave

Some newer private schools have opened up to accommodate the growing number of families in the city, many bringing new approaches to education. Examples include Basis Independent Manhattan, Wetherby-Pembridge, where most classes are single sex, and the Portfolio School, a project-based school that is currently K- 5 and will expand a new grade each year. 

Brooklyn, perhaps unsurprisingly, is seeing a number of new schools, including a Basis Independent in Red Hook.

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 has been accepted into an ongoing school's preschool, they don't need to apply again for kindergarten.

Unlike public schools, where kindergartners 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 kindergartners be five by September 1st.

"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 nonprofit association of parents and independent schools which has been serving families since 1913. "Kindergartens have changed—days are longer and they're asking five-year-olds to do a lot more than in years past. Curriculum is more advanced."

The downside: this means that if your child's birthday is in the fall, you'll be paying for one more year of preschool.

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 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 usually 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 (around $5,000 or more) at the private school as a backup.

That's not advisable, but 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 on top of the deposit.

5. Tuition

For kindergarten, tuition usually runs $40,000-$45,000, 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

Each school does its own individual assessments. Some schools—Avenues, Collegiate, Horace Mann and Riverdale—specifically require the AABL (Admission Assessment for Beginning Learners) test. Registration for this test begins on September 15th at http://erblearn.org/aabl-for-families. Some schools require the KRT (Kindergarten Readiness Test), which is a five-minute iPad evaluation. 

All the schools have some sort of interview included in the application. Usually a group or individualized tour is followed by an interview with the parents. Children are also asked to come in for a play visit—usually in a small group , but individual visits are possible too.

"Usually a family will have two to three visits to the school during the admissions process," Malin says.

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. Siblings almost always have priority, but admissions for siblings is not guaranteed or automatic, Malin says.

Connections don't hurt, but they do not guarantee admission to a school, she 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," Malin says."Especially if they don't know the family well."

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. 

Private school admissions decisions are rarely "need-blind." Rather, they can be "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 financial aid 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 if the money is not available at the time of acceptance.

9. Misconceptions

"People may not know that private schools are diverse, both socioeconomically and culturally," Malin says. “There is a wide array of independent schools in the city—Montessori, progressive, special needs, language-immersion,  Waldorf schools. There are lots of philosophies and approaches."

 

 

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