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In Brick Underground's parents' guide to buying and renting in NYC, we explore the ins and outs of finding a place to live when you have (or are planning on having) kids. We also cover the best Manhattan neighborhoods for families and the best Brooklyn neighborhoods for families.
Now, we're taking a closer look at the biggest factor (besides price) that you’ll weigh as parents when deciding where to live: 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 buy a place that will be in demand by families when it's time for you to sell—read on for advice from education experts about how to navigate public and private elementary school choices.
These efforts include a shift to a lottery for middle school admissions in Brooklyn’s District 15 (implemented this fall)—a move which is being watched carefully by other districts. There’s also an ongoing discussion about possibly eliminating gifted and talented programs citywide, although New York City Chancellor Richard Carranza has said that G&T programs will remain in place this year.
[Editor's note: A previous version of this story ran in September 2019. We are presenting it again here as part of our winter holiday 2019 Best of Brick week.]
Public school options
Most New York City kids who attend public elementary schools go to the school that they are geographically zoned for (see more on school zones below), however, there are lots of additional choices available, including charter schools, magnet schools, and gifted and talented programs. The city's Department of Education website describes it all in great detail.
While it's true that the majority of students attend their zoned school, the number exercising school choice has increased significantly in the past decade.
"Only about 60 percent of kindergartners now attend their zoned schools. Many more families exercise school choice than most people realized," says InsideSchools.org's founder Clara Hemphill. InsideSchools.org is a solid resource that offers pros and cons, descriptions, and user comments about public schools. Hemphill is also the author of “New York City's Best Public Pre-K and Elementary Schools: A Parents' Guide."
To keep your options open, apply to several different schools (you fill out one application for kindergarten, and can list to up to 12 schools). Even if you choose to go with your zoned school, you must still apply for it. While you technically could walk in on the first day of school and register, you run the risk finding out that your grade is full, in which case you'd be assigned to another school.
Applications for general education kindergarten are due in mid-January, with placements in mid-March. (Deadlines for charter schools and gifted and talented programs are different. Read on for more information.)
Feeling confused? Have questions? Every school has a parent coordinator who is available to answer questions about, for example, whether you live in that particular school zone or if there is a waitlist at your desired school. 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.)
However, "Very few elementary schools have waitlists for zoned students, and most of those waitlists evaporate over the summer, says Hemphill. If you did get shut out, remain calm, and consider these options.
How do you get into NYC pre-kindergarten?
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 3-K programs offering free, full-day early childhood education in select districts. Children living in 3-K zones are given priority, but anyone can apply for a spot. (The goal is to eventually offer 3-K citywide as well.)
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 bussing until they're five years old or older. You can also apply to a pre-K outside your district, but residents in that district will be given priority.
There's a single pre-kindergarten application for the entire city, and parents get to list up to a dozen choices. Pre-K applications for September enrollment are due in late February, with the first round of placements happening in April.
Worth noting: Even schools with underperforming classes 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.
What are NYC's zoned schools?
Some schools have a zone, or “catchment,” and if you live in a school’s zone, your child has priority to attend that school. (Students can apply to a school they are not zoned for, but they get in line behind ones that are.) It’s important to note that while a school may be in your neighborhood, even across the street, you may still not be in its zone.
Schools are part of districts; there are 32 school districts in the five boroughs, and hundreds of school 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, or the school's parent coordinator. Your district Community Education Council will also have a zoned map on its website, such as this one for District 2. (Be aware that schools sometimes rezone—which impacts incoming, but not current students.)
Additionally, you can use InsideSchools’ search to find the zoned school for an address, as well as other schools in that district.
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 quality reviews and learn more. Quality Reviews give schools ratings—"well-developed," "proficient"—across numerous categories. They take into account 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. Not every school gets a quality review every year—some may be four or five years old.
A good place to start looking for a "good" zoned school is InsideSchools' "staff picks,” which can be found by refining a search on the site.
“InsideSchools distills what we consider the most important data points about safety and climate as well as test scores and school demographics. We also take the ‘quality of teaching’ from the Quality Review,” says Hemphill.
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. (Our Manhattan neighborhoods for families story reported similar findings.) That said, some of the schools in those neighborhoods are at capacity. There are also several choice, aka un-zoned schools, Aronow says. (Her sole focus is on Manhattan options.)
Hemphill 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 125 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 2 (Manhattan) or District 26 in Eastern 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 angst, "almost everyone has gotten into their zoned school by the start of school in September," Aronow says.
Parents are notified of their placement in March. If, due to overcrowding, children can't be accommodated in their zoned school, the DOE will then reassign them to the next closest school with space (if none of the other schools on their application have space immediately available). However, 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 that you get a seat 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 to know: If you decide to move out of your zone, your child won't be required to switch schools. For that reason, lots of families make a move to a less expensive neighborhood after their child starts school in a desirable location—and this is why popular schools get overcrowded, because more families with school age children can then move in and repeat the pattern.
"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.
So if you rent in an expensive neighborhood with a good zoned school for a year or two, and then move to a more affordable neighborhood, you can keep your child in the original school. One catch is that if you change zones, your child's younger sibling(s) won't get priority in your original zoned school, though they will have priority over those outside the district.
Note that schools can and do check to see that there was no false representations on your application, and that you did, in fact, live in the zone when your child first 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 a preferred zone for when your baby reaches school age, things can change.
"Nothing's guaranteed," Aronow says, and rezoning 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.
School rezonings are typically controversial. In the past five years, hotly-debated rezonings have taken place on the Upper West Side and in parts of north Brooklyn. But they don’t come out of nowhere. If rezoning is on the table in a district, that will be reflected in its Community Education Council meetings and minutes. To find out the latest info on planning and rezoning in a district, head here where you can access documents summarizing any rezoning plans. [Editor's Note: On September 24th, District 15 unveiled two proposals for rezoning elementary school zones to relieve overcrowding and encourage integration.]
"Choice" schools or un-zoned schools
Choice schools—meaning, as the name suggests, those that parents "choose" and are not zoned for—tend to be more progressive. These schools give priority to those who live in the district first, and admission is offered via lottery. In some cases, these may be a few seats left for non-district families.
Some 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.
What are 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, notes Alina Adams of NYC School Secrets an author of “Getting Into NYC Kindergarten,” 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 seat.
How charter schools work
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 their ability to take space and resources within 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.
What about NYC gifted and talented programs?
As mentioned, the city is evaluating the implementation of existing gifted and talented programs, so things may change. But currently, 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 schools (Anderson, Nest+M, TAG, BSI, and 30th Avenue School Q300), which require a score of 97 percent or higher, and district programs, which require a score of 90 percent or higher to be eligible.
Be aware: Should your child qualify for a G&T seat, that does not necessarily mean they will get one, i.e. there are many more kids who score 97 or higher than there are seats.
On the Upper West Side alone, over 50 percent 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.
Test results come out in late March, applications are due in April, and placements are made in late May.
If you're interested in having your child take the G&T test, there are practice questions in the G&T handbook. You can also buy test prep books to familiarize your child with the test. Some parents will hire private tutors, such as Talent Prep 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.
CUNY's gifted and talented program
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. Hunter no longer gives out the percentiles of those who qualify, and as of last year, parents are not informed of their child's score, only if they have made it to the second round or not.
The elementary school (K-6) is open for Manhattan residents only, but 7th to 12th grade is opens to students citywide. (Entry points are kindergarten and seventh grade only.) Applications for the 2019-2020 school year are due November 1st.
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.
As noted in our stories on the best neighborhoods for families in Manhattan and Brooklyn, Aronow cites schools in Hell’s Kitchen as promising and increasingly popular, while InsideSchool’s Zingmond points to Brooklyn’s District 17 as an area with momentum and an engaged community.
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 in the fall or the spring, depending on the program, and tour dates will be listed on the school's web site. Plan to do a tour, as they give a sense of a school, its communities and facilities that you cannot get otherwise. Tours are also a good opportunity to ask school administrators any questions you may have.
The application process for zoned and un-zoned general education kindergarten begins in November and ends mid-January; placements are mid-March.
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 by October. Testing takes place in January and parents find out results in April.
What you need to know about NYC private schools
There will always be parents who choose to go private for many different reasons: Religion, better facilities, smaller class size, and extras like music instruction for every student, a perk parents are not likely to find in public school
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
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; International Academy of New York and Hudson Way Immersion, bilingual Mandarin and Spanish Schools; and the Portfolio School, a project-based school that is currently K-5 and will expand to include sixth grade next year.
Brooklyn, perhaps unsurprisingly, has been getting new schools, including Basis Independent Brooklyn in Red Hook
Age cutoff for NYC private schools
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 a 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 reason for this is "the schools want to be sure that the child is socially and emotionally ready for kindergarten," says Gina Malin, executive director 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.
NYC private school 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. (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.
Private school cost and application process
For kindergarten, tuition usually runs $45,000-$54,000, with newer for profits coming in closer to $30,000. 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.
Each school does its own individual assessments. Some schools—Horace Mann and Riverdale—specifically require the Admission Assessment for Beginning Learners test. Registration for this test is now open. 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.
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 recommendation.
"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.
Getting financial aid for private school
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-award," 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 SSS, TADS 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
"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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