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Navigating the system: New York

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By GreatSchools Staff


Visit the school 

Brown visited all the schools that she was considering for her daughter, a practice that Perelstein recommends. Each school has a parent coordinator on site who is a great resource for prospective parents. Most schools will schedule an open house and visiting days for parents. Visits will give you a good insight into the school’s philosophy, teaching style and mission, but they won’t give you the full picture.

Perelstein advices parents to drop in at the school during drop off or pick up, or during the children’s recess time. Watch how the teachers interact with the kids, notice if the principal greets the children at drop off, check out the other parents, take note of how many adults are on the playground. In general, the more adults present – be they administrative staff, teachers or parents – the better.

Citywide specialty schools

New York’s huge public school system offers many choices and many specialty schools. Is your child into math? There’s a school for that! Dance, music, languages? There are schools for those, too.

Some examples of specialty schools are:
Ballet Tech/NYC Public School for Dance (grades 4-8): a collaboration between Ballet Tech and the city Department of Education that takes 150 students.
PS 150 Tribeca Learning Center : a small school in downtown Manhattan. Admission is through lottery, with priority going to students with siblings at the school and who live in the district. The remaining seats are by lottery.
New Explorations Into Science, Technology, and Math: a K-12 city-wide program for gifted and talented students. Admission is based on testing.

Check out each of the schools you’re interested in and keep track of their admissions policies and deadlines. As Brown discovered, no two are alike.


If your child’s school does not seem the right fit once you’re in, transferring out is possible, but not easy. If your child is in a school that is deemed a failing school by No Child Left Behind standards you will receive notice from the school department with information on how to transfer your child to another school.
The Department of Education lists all of the schools designated as “in need of improvement” at its web site.

Even if your school is not designated as failing, you may request a transfer. The first step is to fill out a variance form, which you can pick up from your local enrollment office. You state in the form the reason for the transfer (such as medical, safety, or hardship) and include all the documentation.

Explore the alternatives

Aside from the specialty schools that may focus on a specific subject, there are other options as well, including charters schools and private schools.

Charter schools

Public charter schools are another choice for parents looking for something outside of their zoned school. Charters are run independently of the local district and their admission is through lottery (though students who live within the charter school’s district will have priority). Currently there are 125 charters in New York, with new ones opening up each year.

Although all charter schools sound good from the outside, the facts are that many charter schools do not beat the performance of comparable public schools. One the other hand, there are charter schools which do an exceptional job. How do you find the diamonds among the rubble? The New York City Center for Charter School Excellence lists math and English test data for charter schools, along with a detailed analysis and a grade-by-grade comparison of test scores of charter and neighborhood schools. Test scores should not be the litmus test for quality but they can give a parent clues as to which schools are worth visiting.

Private schools

For parents willing to spend more (or for those able to obtain financial aid), private schools can offer a whole slew of new options. For a list of private schools in New York, check out our listings, which include 495 private and parochial schools.

Comments from readers

"This is a good concise article on applying to NYC public schools. Just a few comments to add. 1.The zoning information on both the School Search feature on the DOE website and thus at 311 or any other website that depends on the DOE information, is not always accurate. This is particularly true if rezoning or the introduction of new schools has taken place. (As I write this on 8/26/11, the information is inaccurate for some addresses.) The final voice on whether your child is zoned for a particular school or not is the school itself. One can often find more up-to-date zoning maps on the websites of specific Community Education Councils. 2. There are both district schools of choice and citywide options. As many of the district schools of choice, with general education programs, have become extremely popular, it has become exceedingly difficult to get in if you do not live in the district or have a sibling there. PS 150 and PS 212 are basically District 2 options. Similar progressive schools such as Ella Baker, and Central Park I and II will accept children from out of the district. NEST+M along with Anderson, TAG, STEM, and Brooklyn School of Inquiry are Gifted and Talented Citywide Options that require a child to score a minimum of 97% on G&T measures, and in the case of many, to score 99% and be a lucky 99% as many more students score 99% than there are citywide options. 3. Some school districts offer Dual Language programs in which students are immersed in a second language, Spanish, French or Mandarin, for example. The programs aim to have 50% of the students dominant in English and 50% bilingual or dominant in the second language. Preference is presently given to those zoned for the school, but if your child is fluent in the second language, there might be an opportunity to pick up a seat in one of these programs. "