Getting In: Starting Your Kids at Kindergarten in New York City

by on January 5, 2012 · 1 comment

Navigating the preschool system in a new city can be daunting. Here are some tips to make the job a little easier.

Getting into kindergarten in New York City is such a convoluted process it has it’s own season. Admissions season kicks off shortly after the school year begins in September and runs parents through a series of applications, tours, testing deadlines and interviews for around five to nine months, depending on whether you’re applying to private, public or charter schools, or hedging your bets with all three.

Whatever your strategy, the year before your preschooler’s fifth birthday will be your “Year of Getting In”. Here are some preseason pointers on the public school process.


New York City’s roughly 700 public elementary (generally K-5) schools are divided into 31 districts (six of them in Manhattan). The schools within each district are strictly zoned.

There is a disparity between the reputation and performance of schools that lie just blocks apart but with some of the most popular schools forced to wait-list kids who live in their zones, applying to an alternate public school outside your zone will be tough. Your best bet is to move well within the borders of your school of choice.

Some of the more savvy real-estate brokers make it their business to know their school zones. You can search for a school in your area on the NYC Schoolsearch map. If you don’t have an address yet and are looking for a map of boundaries, this tutorial on Mommypoppins will help.

The Choice

So how do you know which school zone to aim for? First, New York’s public school’s are given progress report cards each year. Report cards are based on the progress of students’ test scores from one year to the next and consist of letter grades A to D and F. The reports are by no means exhaustive but they’ll give you questions to keep in mind as you do your own research. Schools’ websites provide links to their recent report cards.

Attend school tours. They’re generally offered in the fall and early winter but pre-registration for kindergarten begins in March so aim to start early. The tours also fill up so call or check your target schools’ websites in September to find out when they’re holding theirs. A great resource for parents, Inside Schools has a list of tips on what to look for during school tours.

For broader insider knowledge, preschools usually have a person charged with handling “exmissions”. Or consider enlisting a school search consultant like Robin Aronow’s School Search NYC. Clara Hemphill’s book. New York’s Best Public Elementary Schools, offers reviews of some of the popular ones. She has also published reviews on middle and high schools.

Less official but just as beneficial (although slightly overwhelming) is the advice from other parents. Any preschooler’s parent will regale you with admissions horror stories in the same way we spin spider-bite and shark attack tales. But don’t be discouraged – that neighborhood school gossip is your missing link to local knowledge.

The G&T

If you’re unhappy with your zoned school the G&T (gifted and talented) program is one way out. The G&T program follows the same curriculum as the general education classes but at an accelerated pace. It’s open to eligible children who might live outside the school’s zone. Many New Yorkers rely on this as a back-op option so it’s competitive. Whether their parents were actively pursuing a G&T class or not, last January and February over 14,000 children took the test.

There are five city-wide G&T programs, which offer spots to children who score in the 97th percentile in the aptitude tests (realistically the cut-off has crept up to 99). There are also around 33 district-wide G&T programs, which are open to kids who achieve a score in the 90th percentile and who live anywhere within the school’s district (but not necessarily in its catchment zone).

The deadline to submit Request for Testing forms is around the end of October. However you feel about testing preschoolers, it’s worth at least diarising the deadlines.

Independent, magnet and charter schools have their own admissions procedures and deadlines. We’ll bring you advice on tackling these in July and August just in time for Labor Day’s independent school phone frenzy!