Updated September 8, 2015
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 education 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 city's Department of Education website describes it all in great detail; another solid resource is Insideschools.org, which offers pros and cons and summaries about each school.
To keep your options open, apply to several different schools for your child (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 enters schools.
To find out whether there's likely to be a waitlist (in overcrowded areas there can be), we suggest you reach out to the school's parent coordinator. Every school has one.
One of Mayor Bill De Blasio's first initiatives was free pre-K for all, and all four-year-olds in the city are guaranteed a spot. The problem: Not all public schools offer pre-K programs, so you may have to travel out of your area to go. (Also, note that kids aren't eligible for school buses until they're five years or older.) There's a single pre-kindergarten 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. (This year, the deadline was April 24th).
Worth noting: 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.
2. Zoned schools
What is a zoned school?
Districts are comprised of school "zones" (often referred to "catchments"). There are 32 school districts in the five boroughs, plus 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 with them, since information can be outdated.)
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.
One case study: "PS 199 on the Upper West Side had close to 100 applicants on its waitlist this year, and unlike last year when it added an extra class, was unable to accommodate everyone. The DOE had to assign those applicants to other schools in the neighborhood," says Aronow.
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, 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, though. 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.
Where are the "good" zoned schools?
Aronow suggests searching through Insideschools.org's "noteworthy" category to get a sense of which neighborhoods have strong schools. The site has reviews on all schools and provides real specifics, like rodent problems and the like.
There's no shortage of good schools in Manhattan, Aronow reminds us, 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.
"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 Insideschools 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, 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, try looking in District 26 in Bayside, Queens. However, Hemphill adds, "Schools can change drastically in a few years."
Getting into 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, 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," 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 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, liaise with parents and answer questions, at the school 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," 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 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
The unfortunate news for New York City parents is that even once you've secured an apartment in the right zone, things can (and do) 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).
Rezoning of the PS 199 and PS 191 zones, for instance, is up for discussion, just in time for kindergarten applications for September 2016.
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." (This, admittedly, is a specific and restrictive real estate option.)
3. "Choice" schools (a.k.a. unzoned schools)
Choice schools—meaning, 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 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 diversity and receive federal or state funding for special programs (such as science, technology or art). 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). 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 & 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 require 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 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 7th grade only. Information on applying will be available on its website in mid-August.
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.
Szuflita agrees, adding that "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.
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 G&T programs have to request the test taking by October. Testing takes place in January and parents find out results in April.
While there will always be parents who choose to go private for bragging rights, 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.
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, 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; Nord Anglia International School on the Lower East Side; the International School of Brooklyn; the academic-focused one-year-old Basis Independent Brooklyn (which is a lot less expensive than other independent schools), and New York International School on the Upper East Side.
Brooklyn, perhaps unsurprisingly, is seeing a number of new schools, including the brand-new AltSchool.
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 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 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 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," 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.
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.org) 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.
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 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.
For kindergarten, tuition usually ranges between $40,000 to $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 their 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 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 priority, admissions for siblings is not guaranteed or automatic, 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."
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 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 socio-economically and culturally," says Malin.
“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," she adds.