For some parents, applying to kindergarten has become a second job.
They are zoned for schools that are failing, overcrowded or unsafe. They make phone calls, search websites and seek advice in hurried conversations at pre-school pick-up or on playgrounds to find out what schools are good and have space for out-of-zone kids. They make appointments to go on an overwhelming number of school tours and arrive at work late. They traverse the district, the borough and sometimes the city trying to find a good school that has available seats.
Dao Tran sends her daughter to the pre-kindergarten program she is zoned for at PS 49 in the Mott Haven section of the South Bronx, where one-third of the children are reading at grade level. But she hopes she will not have to return next year. "The school depresses me," she said.
Her four-year-old does not have recess, even though there is a well-equipped playground across the street, and she can't get a straight answer why the children don't play outside. Her daughter now tells her parents to stop talking at dinner, because she says at school "eating time is quiet time."
"I feel like they are just being taught how to follow orders," Tran said. "It's the opposite of what we want. I want her to feel like learning is fun."
The family is applying to six other schools, five of which are in Manhattan. As a District 7 resident, she only has preference at the sixth choice, a local charter school that uses a lottery system. Tran also called PS 140 in nearby District 8, which a friend recommended. "They said we were in the right district, but they didn't give tours, and they seemed bewildered about why we would want to visit," Tran said. "I was like, that's not a good sign."
Although test scores are not her primary concern, none of the schools in her district have more than half the kids reading at grade level. Her daughter, who speaks Vietnamese, Spanish and English, has taken the Gifted and Talented exam, but there are currently no G&T programs in her district.
If none of her options pan out, she is planning to enroll in the Early Steps program, which helps kids of color apply to private schools.
A Harlem mom, who asked that her name not be used as she is vying for some competitive schools, said that her local school is also not an option. Fewer than one-third of the kids are reading at grade level, and it has struggled with safety issues. "A friend sent their child there, and his finger almost came off because the teacher left him alone with adult scissors," she said. She has applied to Central Park East and four other schools in upper Manhattan. "It has been a stressful, time-consuming process," she said.
Carolina Bank Munoz, who lives in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, has been on ten tours after the one at her zoned school convinced her it was out of the question. She found a school in her district that she loved, but even though it has space, she was told it doesn't take kids who live outside the zone. "The parent coordinator asked me, 'Do you have a fake address you could use?' But we didn't," she said.
Munoz found two schools in her district – PS 217 and PS 193 -- that take kids from out of zone, and she is applying to a dual language program at PS 9 in Prospect Heights. She also applied to the Brooklyn-wide lottery-based Brooklyn New School and her son just took the G&T test.
"I feel like I have a pretty low bar," she said. "I want recreation, and I like when the classrooms have kids' work on the walls."
She said it has taken an enormous amount of work, and that most of her information has come not from the Education Department but from word-of-mouth or websites. Nonetheless, she is done worrying about it. "I'm feeling optimistic," Munoz said. "We're applying to seven schools. He's gotta get into one of them."