NYC Public Schools 101.

Are you a parent just beginning to explore the New York City public school system? If so, this page is for you. The good news is that with a lot of time, research and determination, NYC parents have quite a lot of flexibility and choice when it comes to sending their children to a public school. The bad news is that it takes a lot of time, research and determination to understand how the system works.

Brooklyn's District 16
Brooklyn's District 16

WHEN does my child go to school? 

The calendar year in which your child turns four is the year he/she is eligible for public pre-K. So, if your child was born in 2012, you would apply to pre-K in the spring of 2016 and your child starts in the fall of 2016. If you have a January baby, she will be among the oldest in her class. If you have a December baby, he will be the youngest. The Department of Education does not allow red-shirting, or holding a child back a year. 

WHERE will my child go to school? 

The five boroughs are divided into Districts and Zones. Each District is home to several Zone schools, and each NYC child is assigned a zoned school based on his or her address. Generally, every child is guaranteed a seat in his or her zoned school, though some very popular and high-performing public schools have waiting lists filled with just zoned children! You can find your zoned school and district using the NYC Department of Education's School Search Map. It is 95 percent accurate, but to be extra certain, it is recommended that you call the secretary at your zoned school and check.

If you don't like your zoned school, you can apply to most other schools. You have a better chance for admission if you're applying to another school within your District. (Generally, the order of preference to applying students is as follows: in-zone with older sibling enrolled, in-zone, in-district with older sibling enrolled, out-of-district with older sibling enrolled, in-district, out-of-district but in-borough, out-of-district and out-of-borough). There are exceptions, of course. Some schools are unzoned but limited to a specific District (or set of Districts) and are lottery-based.

The Gifted & Talented Program begins in Kindergarten and has a separate, test-based admission process. Your child can take the test in the spring of their pre-K year. There are five NYC Gifted & Talented schools, and your child must score 97 or above on the G&T tests to even apply. There are far more applications than seats. There are also G&T programs within schools, for which student must score 90 or above. Currently, District 16 lacks a G&T program that starts in kindergarten, but welcomed a new program that begins in 3rd grade (at PS 26). More details on the G&T admissions process are here.

Charter Schools, while considered part of the public school system, have a separate admissions process. Some charter schools also give preference to children in their own district.

When applying, a parent may include up to 12 school choices on their child's application. The best way to game this system is not to game it: list the schools in order of your actual preference. You will automatically be waitlisted at any school that you list higher than the one you get into.

What if I don't get into my favorite school?

Just wait! There is a lot of shuffling around after families receive offers for Gifted & Talented placements and charter placements, and many schools are still turning to their waiting lists as late as October. In fact, it is most likely that your initial offer for placement will be at your zoned school.

How do I know which schools I will like?

You can start with a website like Inside Schools, a great resource that will give you picks, schools to watch and statistics for each school including size and demographics, test scores, surveys of parents and teachers, and ratings. If at all possible, tour the school yourself. Many parents see their dream school on paper and feel very differently when they get a feel for the school. Also, check the admissions data at each school -- the DOE (Dept. of Ed.) publishes annual directories that will tell you how many seats a school has and whether they accepted out of zone or out of district students (look for the Lowest Priority Group Accepted). 

For more information, in either a group lecture or one-on-one help, we recommend Joyce Szuflita of NYC School Help, who is a pro at breaking down how it works and how to approach the public school process.