In the midst of the kindergarten application season, the Department of Education has posted its first-ever directory of all public elementary schools in the city. The listing indicates which are zoned schools, which are unzoned, and which have gifted and talented, dual language or magnet programs.
The 80-page 2012-2013 directory [PDF] should be an especially helpful tool for parents of five-year-olds seeking alternatives to their neighborhood schools. It explains the kindergarten application process, defines the priorities for admission to each program, and how the waitlist works for schools with more applicants than available space. All parents of incoming kindergartners may apply individually to as many schools as they wish -- but the best odds of admission to a school you aren't zoned for is at a school with special programs.
A quick look shows that most districts offer at least some choice -- unzoned, dual language, G&T progams and many times all three. Three districts - District 3 in Manhattan, District 14 in Brooklyn and District 30 in Queens -- have active magnet schools. Magnets receive federal funding to offer a theme-based curriculum such as technology, the arts, or engineering. There is a separate application for non-zoned students, available at the schools.
The Elementary School Directory doesn't tell you how many slots each program offers or your chances of admission if you're not in the zone. For that, you'll have to call the parent coordinator or tour the school. Check the school reviews on Insideschools. We now have slide shows for many popular elementary schools.