The buyer's and renter's guide to NYC's public and private elementary schools
- Public school enrollment has plunged due to families moving or switching to private schools
- There's no longer a test to get into the gifted program, but the entrance process is complicated
In most places, when you’re a parent searching for a place to live, you typically want to know how close is the elementary school your child(ren) will attend. But in New York City—like so many aspects of living here—getting into an elementary school can sometimes be very complicated. Living near an elementary school doesn’t necessarily mean your children will go to school there.
The reason: NYC public elementary schools rely on a zoning system—and so you could live a few blocks from a school but still be outside of its geographic boundaries—and be in a different school zone instead. (Depending on where you live, you are likely to still have a few options for elementary school.)
[Editor’s Note: This article has been updated for 2022. A previous version was published in August. We are presenting it again as part of our winter Best of Brick week.]
But this system is getting a shake up as a result of the pandemic. There’s been a plunge in public school enrollment as a result of families moving out of the city, shifting to private or parochial schools, or opting to home school instead. As a result, children who do not live in the zone of even some notoriously hard-to-get-into schools may now have an opportunity to attend.
For example, last July, one parent told Brick Underground that their out-of-zone child was already off the waitlist and placed into coveted PS 321 in Park Slope for fall—a situation that would have been completely unheard of in prior years.
But that’s not the only change. In another major shift, there's no longer a test for entrance to the gifted and talented program. Instead, acceptance is based on: a teacher evaluation and nomination, DOE interview, and then a lottery—a process that appears to have been anything but smooth, much to the frustration of parents city wide.
Sound confusing? Fortunately, there are lots of resources available to help get a handle on public and private elementary schools. Brick talked to some of the experts who track NYC schools to find out what has changed and what you need to know 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.
Public elementary school options
About half of NYC children who attend public elementary schools go to the school that they are geographically zoned for (see more on school zones below), the rest head to charter schools, magnet schools, and gifted and talented programs.
The percentage attending zoned schools has dropped in recent years.
"Many more families exercise school choice than most people realized," says Clara Hemphill, founder of InsideSchools, a website with independent reviews of schools and guides to the NYC school system. (Hemphill, who retired from InsideSchools, is also the author of “New York City's Best Public Pre-K and Elementary Schools: A Parents' Guide.")
One helpful tip: By answering a few questions, InsideSchools will generate a list of schools that your child is eligible to attend. The site also has forums for parents to chat about their experiences with schools called InsideSchools+, and parents can set up a free membership and take online courses to learn about the school admissions process.
In general, the process works like this: To keep your options open, you apply to several different schools (for kindergarten you can list to up to 12 schools and you do this on one single application). Even if you choose to go with your zoned school, you must still apply in advance for a seat.
Applications for general education kindergarten are due in mid-January. Placements have been occurring as late as April during the pandemic, instead of March. (Deadlines for charter schools and gifted and talented programs are different, more on those below.) NYC’s MySchools is the portal where you create your application and get guidance on the admissions process.
Have questions about a specific school? Every public school has a parent coordinator who is available to answer questions about the process. Contact info is typically listed on the school's website.
In the past, there were wait lists for some schools—these would give preference to students who lived in the zone. Sometimes it took until the end of the summer to find out whether your child got a spot. That may no longer be the case at a lot of schools.
"Enrollment is down since the start of the pandemic," says Laura Zingmond, senior editor at InsideSchools. "Some schools that typically only accept zoned students may now have space for some students from outside their zone," she says.
How do you get into NYC pre-kindergarten?
One of former Mayor Bill de Blasio's major initiatives was free pre-K for all, and all four-year-olds in the city are now guaranteed a spot. The city also added 3-K programs, offering free, full-day early childhood education, and expanded the program city wide last year, however placement is not guaranteed.
Not all public schools offer pre-K programs, so your child may have to travel out of your area to attend. Many also have limited space. There are also pre-K Centers run by Department of Education staff, like K280 School of Journeys in Windsor Terrace, considered 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.
Worth noting: Even underperforming 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 school application process. Her focus is on Manhattan schools.
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 is a separate application process. Once a child is enrolled in a kindergarten in a school, for example, that goes through fifth grade (or higher) they do not need to apply again.
What are zoned schools?
Some schools have a catchment area, referred to as a “zone,” and if you live in a school’s zone, your child has priority to attend that school. (So students can apply to a school they are not zoned for, but if there is a waitlist, they get in line behind students that are in the zone.)
Schools are part of districts; there are 32 school districts in the five boroughs, and hundreds of school zones.
School zone boundaries don’t often make a lot of sense. You may live down the street from a school and one side of the street will be in the zone and the other side is not. In addition, sometimes schools “rezone” or redraw their boundaries.
When a rezoning happens, families with children already attending a school that find themselves outside the zone will continue to attend the school, but newcomers will go to a different school.
You can 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. Additionally, you can use InsideSchools's search to find the zoned school for an address, as well as other schools in that district.
Zingmond says if you’re considering a move to a place that appears to be on the border of a school zone, don’t take a broker’s word for it that it falls within a certain zone. Some apartment listings include school zones, but the information can be outdated or erroneous.
The safest bet—and a must-do piece of due diligence to make before signing a lease or contract—is to call the school you think you're zoned for, as they'll have a database of all the addresses that fall in their catchment.
How to do research on a school
Once you've found out your zoned school, do a search for it on the DOE site. You'll get a lot of information, including the school quality guide, which is based on results from the NYC School Survey and more information on student achievement, and the quality review report, which is the result of a two-day visit by an experienced educator. Be aware that some of this information may be from prior years because of the pandemic. There were no state tests in 2020 and in 2021, families nearly 80 percent of students in third through eighth grades did not sit for the tests.
Another good place to do your research is InsideSchools's "staff picks,” which can be found by refining a search on the site.
Other categories that can be selected include "gifted & talented,” "charter,” and "dual language." The site has reviews on all schools and provides real specifics, including rodent problems and the like.
Where to look for NYC elementary schools
There are many high-performing zoned schools in Manhattan, particularly on the Upper East Side, Upper West Side, the Village, Midtown East, and Tribeca. There are also several “choice,” aka un-zoned schools, Aronow says.
Hemphill says the schools everyone has 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.”
Schools in Brooklyn’s District 13, which includes Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, and downtown Brooklyn, have become very popular in recent years, she says.
Hemphill singles out Williamsburg as one neighborhood where schools are making great strides, including Brooklyn Arbor (PS 414).
If you want other solid schools, Hemphill says, look at District 2 (Manhattan) or District 26 in Eastern Queens. District 15 in Brooklyn is also known for its high-performing elementary schools.
And for more intel on the Bronx, check out InsideSchools’s Best Bets in the Bronx.
Applying to out-of-zone schools
You can apply to schools out of your zone or even your district, and now chances are better that you get a seat even in super popular schools, like the Upper East Side's PS 6 and the Upper West Side's PS 87. The DOE only releases seats after all zoned applicants have been registered.
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 the next section below for more detail).
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 school for the duration, 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, although they will have priority over those outside the district.
Note that schools can and do check to see that there were 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.
‘Choice’ schools or un-zoned schools
Choice schools—as the name suggests, are those that parents get to "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.
In addition to all schools in District 1 on the Lower East Side, 7 in the Bronx, and District 23 in Brooklyn, there are individual non-zoned choice schools such as Midtown West, Tribeca Learning Center and Ella Baker in District 2; Manhattan School for Children in District 3; Central Park East I and II in District 4; Central Park East I and II and Teacher’s Community College in District 5; and Teacher’s Community College, William Lynch (formerly Hamilton Heights), Washington Heights, WHEELS, Castle Bridge School, Amistad, Muscota in District 6; and The Children's School and the Brooklyn New School in Brooklyn's District 15. (For more options, you can do a search for choice schools on MySchools.)
What are magnet schools?
These are choice schools intended to foster diversity and receive federal funding for specialized curriculums focused on science, technology, or art. They are not gifted and talented schools, notes Alina Adams, founder of NYC School Secrets, consultant, and author of “Getting Into NYC Kindergarten."
"Most people, if they're moving to New York from somewhere else, think these are gifted and talented schools," she says. "They're not."
According to InsideSchools, it’s a good idea to call your district office to find out if there are any magnet programs in your area as well as visit and ask if the school still receives additional support or is a “magnet” in name only. You can also call the magnet school office at (718) 759-4977 or email [email protected]
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 English language learners and criticize 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 NYC Charter School Center website or at the individual schools. The application deadline is April 1st, however, some schools may have later deadlines.
Students are admitted according to the number of seats available, according to the website, and if a charter school receives more applications than available seats, the school is required to hold a lottery. Lotteries are typically held in April and May. Applicants who don’t get a seat via the lottery are placed on a wait list.
What about NYC gifted and talented programs?
Before the pandemic, there were question marks next to the city’s gifted and talented program. And while there were major changes to the admissions process with the elimination of screening, it appears the program will remain during Mayor Eric Adams and School Chancellor Banks’ tenure, Aronow says.
“However, it is not yet clear if what was used during the pandemic—i.e. parent or teacher identifies a child who could benefit from a G&T program, parents are interviewed by a DOE staff member and then all nominated applicants go into a lottery—will continue or if they will bring back a screening measure and what it will look like,” she says.
InsideSchools has more on how the gifted and talented admission process works now.
The program was also broadly expanded, Aronow points out. “G&T will now be in every district starting with kindergarten, one can apply in kindergarten through third grade and there is a new special third grade entry point as well.”
Parents’ experiences with the new admission procedure has varied widely, with some parents feeling like their child was shut out of the process. In addition, while eligibility for the program was expanded—now several thousands more make the cut, Adams says, only 100 seats have been added.
For the 2021-2022 school year, around 12,000 applied to the gifted and talented program and roughly 10,000 made the cut for the same 2,000 seats available as in the past. Now with the current universal approach, she thinks 15,000 made the cut—who will vie for 2,100 seats in a lottery. Acceptance letters are expected to come out any day now.
“Demand is so out of proportion with supply, lower enrollment hasn’t made a difference,” Adams says.
There are still citywide G&T schools—Anderson School on the Upper West Side, NEST+M on the Lower East Side, TAG (Talented and Gifted School for Young Scholars) in East Harlem, Brooklyn School of Inquiry in Bensonhurst, and PS/IS 300, The 30th Avenue School on two campuses in Astoria—and district programs, but in last two years all G&T applicants have been eligible for both programs instead of admission being based on grades.
“Now there’s no distinction. Everyone is in the same pot—it’s just a random lottery," Adams says.
One thing hasn’t changed: Even though public school enrollment is down, it’s a mistake to think by moving near a gifted and talented school your child has a better chance of getting in.
“If you move in a popular gen ed zone, even in August, you will have a good chance of getting in September," Adams says. “That’s not the case with G&T. Know that the gifted and talented program is not based on zone. You do not have priority, and that’s especially true now.”
Going forward, you can expect additional changes as school officials try to make the system fairer.
“Coming out of the pandemic there may be more changes made based on lessons learned. The past two years-plus has underscored the need to make admission to NYC schools more diverse and equitable," Zingmond says.
CUNY's gifted and talented program
Hunter College Elementary School is a free, gifted K-12 program run by Hunter College and CUNY with a curriculum that exceeds New York State mandated guidelines issued by the Board of Regents. The elementary school (K-6) is now open to students citywide. Entry points are kindergarten and seventh grade only, and most students join in seventh grade.
It has a separate application process and the admissions for fall 2022 have ended. The application schedule for fall 2023 is not yet posted, but be sure to keep checking the site. In the past the process was open in late August through mid-September, with applications due by November 4th.
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 more established schools, plus dynamic, engaged staff.
She says schools in Hell’s Kitchen are promising and increasingly popular, and Brooklyn’s District 17 has 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).
In the past, tours were held in the fall and spring, but schools did not hold tours during the pandemic; most did virtual tours.
“It will probably remain that way, but we will see,” Aronow says.
If tours return, dates will be listed on a school’s web site. Plan to do them if they are available, because they are also a good opportunity to ask questions and get a sense of a school that you cannot get otherwise.
The application process for kindergarten is not confirmed at this point. However the kindergarten application period is usually early December to mid-January and the notification date should be no later than April. “It could be earlier if Chancellor Banks’ promise to move up the date comes through,” Aronow says.
Public schools don't have interviews, per se, though the Special Music School has a music evaluation; Hunter has an assessment for students 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 later deadlines, so inquire with individual schools.
What you need to know about NYC private schools
There will always be parents who choose to go private for many different reasons: Religious instruction, 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 its 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 of the most well-known NYC private schools include Columbia Grammar & Preparatory School, Trinity School, The Brearley School, The Dalton School, and Spence School in Manhattan; Horace Mann School and Riverdale Country School in the Bronx; Berkeley Carroll School, and Saint Ann's School in Brooklyn.
Other private schools that have opened in recent years include Avenues, Basis Independent Manhattan, Wetherby-Pembridge, Hudson Way Immersion, Portfolio School, and 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, the former executive director at the Parents League of New York, a nonprofit association of parents and independent schools. "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 (New York State Association of Independent Schools) and NAIS.org (National Association of Independent Schools). Individual schools have their own websites, too.
Since private school notifications go out so much earlier than public school, some parents who hope to get into a certain public school will put down a non-refundable deposit (around 15 percent of tuition) 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.
Each school does its own individual assessment, and many schools changed their testing procedures last year because of the pandemic. Group tours were also halted during the pandemic (typically 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 a family will have two to three visits to the school during the admissions process," Malin says. During the pandemic all visits were virtual.
Now that children under five were vaccinated, “it is likely more schools will do onsite assessments,” Aronow says, but it is not clear whether it will return in a group format.
In the past, applications went online in August or September, and are usually not processed until after Labor Day. Acceptance letters went out in February and you usually have a week to accept or decline.
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."
Private school cost and financial aid
Tuition for schools is now $55,000 to $65,000 with newer schools closer to $40,000. 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.
Since private school does not come cheap in New York City, 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-aware," 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 to fill out an application through websites like 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."
—Earlier versions of this article contained reporting and writing by Mimi O’Connor.
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