Neighborhood Intel

The buyer's and renter's guide to NYC's public and private elementary schools

By Lucy Cohen Blatter | July 12, 2021 - 12:30PM 

PS 11 in Chelsea offers Collaborative Team Teaching, English Language Learners, Special Education, and Gifted & Talented programs.

Watzek Library Digital Projects/Flickr

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 that you want your child(ren) to attend. But in New York City—like so many aspects of living here—the school system is very complicated. Living near an elementary school doesn’t necessarily dictate where your child will go to school.

One reason: NYC public elementary schools rely on a zoning system—and so you could live just a few blocks from a school but still be outside of its geographic boundaries. Depending on where you live, however, you are likely to still have a few options for where to send your child for elementary school. Having a choice (some might call it an illusion of choice) can be welcome—but it can also breed competition and anxiety.

But this year is likely to be less fraught than in the past. Many families moved out of the city during the pandemic, and spaces have opened up in even some of the most popular, in-demand elementary schools, giving children who do not live in the zone an opportunity to attend. (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.)

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—and found out about some of the lasting changes caused by the pandemic—and what’s still unsettled.

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.


[Editor's note: A previous version of this story ran in September 2019. We are presenting it again with updated information for July 2021.]


Public elementary school options

About half of 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), the rest head to charter schools, magnet schools, and gifted and talented programs (although there’s a big question mark next to the latter for the upcoming year).

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 recently added forums for parents to chat about their experiences with schools called InsideSchools+, where 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. If you walk in on the first day of school and try to register then, 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, more on those below.) NYC’s MySchools is the portal where you create your application and get guidance on the admissions process.

Feeling confused? Have questions? Every public school has a parent coordinator who is available to answer questions about, for example, 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 list of 300 students not in the zone hoping for placement.) 

Usually, when elementary schools have waitlists for zoned students, they tend to open up over the summer as families make decisions about where to send their children. This summer—the opposite scenario could possibly occur with open spots at some elementary schools.

“Enrollment is down because of the pandemic,” says Laura Zingmond, senior editor at InsideSchools. “While some New Yorkers are returning to the city, some schools that usually only accept zoned students may take students from outside their zone.”

How do you get into NYC pre-kindergarten?

One of 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 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. 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 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 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. (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 move 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, schools can “rezone” or redraw their boundaries—for example—seven elementary schools in Brooklyn recently got the green light to redraw their borders, according to Patch.

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. Many real estate websites offer school information with listings, 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 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. 

When there are waiting lists for 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."

How to do research on a school

Once you've found out your zoned school, visit the DOE site and check out a school’s “Quality Review,” which “look[s] at how well schools are organized to support student learning and teacher practice.”

Quality Reviews give schools ratings—"well-developed," "proficient"—across numerous categories. They take into account 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. [Editor’s note: Students that were fully remote were not required to take the state tests in 2021—according to Chalkbeat, about 70 percent of NYC students were learning from home. And many students that were hybrid learners opted out of the tests.]

A good place to start looking for a "good" zoned school 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,” "dual language" and others. 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. That said, some of the schools in those neighborhoods were at capacity in recent years. There are also several “choice,” aka un-zoned schools, Aronow says. (Her focus is on Manhattan options.) 

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 and middle schools, which use a lottery-based system for admissions.

And for more intel, 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, but historically 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 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—meaning, 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. 

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 gifted and talented schools, notes Alina Adams of NYC School Secrets, an 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."

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 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 New York City Charter School Center website or at the individual schools. 

What about NYC gifted and talented programs?

Even before the pandemic, there were questions marks next to the city’s G&T program and changes were expected. That’s even truer now because the city did not administer a G&T test this past year. “Instead, families and educators helped identify students for accelerated learning,” according to the DOE’s website.

“The city did away with screens last year because of the pandemic,” Zingmond explains.  Whether that will remain the case in the future will depend on who becomes mayor and what Meisha Porter, the new schools chancellor, wants to do, she says. “Coming out of the pandemic there are going to be changes based on lessons learned,” she adds. The past year-plus has underscored the need to make admission to NYC schools more diverse and equitable.

While the city has not released a timetable for the G&T programs, in the past parents had to request to have their child tested to be considered (the deadline was usually in November).

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

Previous test results come out in late March, applications are due in April, and placements are made in late May. (Again—keep in mind that this may all change this year.)

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 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. 

It has a separate application process and the admissions process for 2021-2022 is closed according to the school’s website, and details are not yet posted for the following year.

The elementary school (K-6) is open for Manhattan residents only, and 7th to 12th grade is opens to students citywide. (Entry points are kindergarten and seventh grade only, and most students join in seventh grade.)

Sleeper schools and other expert recommendations

Aronow suggests considering new schools; while many parents are hesitant to try them out, she says, 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). 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.

Public schools don't have interviews, per se, though the Special Music School 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.

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 newer private schools have opened up to accommodate the growing number of families in the city, many bringing new approaches to education. Examples include Avenues, Basis Independent Manhattan, Wetherby-Pembridge, where most classes are single sex; International Academy of New York and Hudson Way Immersion, and the Portfolio School

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 (New York State Association of Independent Schools) and NAIS.org (National Association of Independent Schools). Individual schools have their own websites, too.

Since the private school notification is 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 $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.

Each school does its own individual assessment and many schools changed their testing procedures last year because of the pandemic. Most have not updated their websites yet with instructions for the next application process. 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.

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.

Private school cost and financial aid

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.

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-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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