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Navigating the system: New York

Live in or around NYC? We did the homework to help parents make informed choices about the area's schools.

By GreatSchools Staff

When Laura Brown’s daughter was 4, she and her husband went to check out their neighborhood school on the upper West Side of New York. They had high hopes for the school, but they were disappointed. The school’s test scores were low and it was overcrowded. The kindergarteners had to take turns going out for recess because they couldn’t all fit on the playground at the same time. The other half sat in the auditorium watching cartoons.

“As parents we were torn,” Brown said. “We wanted the best situation for our daughter but we felt guilty for leaving behind a bad school. But it comes down to doing what’s best for your child.”

The Browns knew that the school would not work for their daughter, so they set out to navigate the complex system of New York’s public schools. With more than 1.1 million students, 1700 schools, and 80,000 teachers, New York has the largest school system in the country. Finding the right school can be a daunting task and will probably mean a bit of homework for the parents.

Liz Perelstein, president of School Choice International,  helps families who have kids starting in New York’s schools, whether through relocation or starting in kindergarten. The fact that NY has lots of options when it comes to school creates challenges as well as opportunities for parents, she says.

“Choice is great, but it makes picking the right [school] that much more complicated,” she said, with a laugh.

Need help beating the system? Read our suggestions for navigating the area's often-complex rules and finding the best school for your child.

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. "