It's gone from famine to feast in recent years: Parents once faced with too few pre-k options may now wade through a world of choices. Let us help you narrow the list with some promising new programs and schools we can recommend in every borough. Note: If a great program is hopelessly oversubscribed we didn't include it here.
Applications for pre-kindergarten for children born in 2013 are due Feb. 24. (Charter schools have separate applications. The Common Online Charter School Application closes on Saturday, April 1 at midnight.)
Popular programs, especially in public schools, have many more applicants than seats. We've limited our picks to programs that are most likely to have space for children living outside the school zone or who aren't siblings of current students. Still, it doesn't hurt to apply to a program where space is tight: If you're not matched in this first application round, your name will be automatically put on a waitlist for all the choices you listed above the one you got. Be patient. Spaces frequently open up even in the fall.
We advise parents to visit a school before applying. The Department of Education has a calendar listing some open houses here. Be wary of schools that don't allow you to visit.
This year, for the first time, the Department of Education is providing two evaluations, called "Quality Snapshots" of all the city's pre-kindergarten programs. You can see these on the pre-k finder map. The ECERS-R (Early childhood environment rating scale) ratings are based on a three-hour observation. A reviewer rates aspects of quality such as the physical environment, a positive tone and health and safety. CLASS (classroom assessment scoring system) is based on 20-minute observations to evaluate the quality of the interaction between teachers and children.
How much weight should you place on these newly provided evaluations? Our advice is that if you see a particularly low rating (1 out of 4 on ECERS or CLASS), do ask about it when you visit, keeping in mind it is only one factor. Most of all trust your instincts. There is nothing better than a visit.
We like the pre-k centers we have visited so far. They only enroll 4-year-olds, are run by the DOE located in schools, renovated warehouses, and wherever the city can find space. The equipment is new, the staff is starting fresh and they are supervised by early childhood experts.
Families can apply to up to 12 programs online at nyc.gov/prek, over the phone at 718-935-2067, or in person at a Family Welcome Center. Applications for charter schools are found on each school's website or at the NYC Charter School Center.
In District 7, which has no zoned schools, the young principal at Concourse Village Elementary School inspires students to reach high. Little Haven at Mott Haven Academy Charter has two joyful pre-k classrooms and lots of loving support. The school's chef serves up broccoli, edamame and other healthy options. (Applications are on the school's website and due March 31. Priority goes to kids in foster care.)
Soundview and Pelham Bay
In District 8, PS 69 has a flourishing vegetable garden and a principal who was trained at respected early childhood think-tank Bank Street College. Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña visited Kiderific Nursery School and found it to be "exciting, invigorating and joyful."
Riverdale, Wave Hill and Central Bronx
In District 10, we recommend St. Dominic's Torch and Saint Simon Stock. Pre-k expert Kym Vanderbilt of Lehman College likes Amalgamated Nursery School and Marble Hill Nursery School. There is a district lottery for seats in the two pre-k classrooms at Bronx New School.
Public school pre-kindergartens in District 11 tend to fill up with siblings. There are three new pre-k centers spread across the district—we recommend putting them on your visit list.
In District 12, Little Scholars, a Reggio-based program, is "truly wonderful," said Vanderbilt. In the Reggio approach, children explore art, drama, music, puppetry and more. Preference goes to low-income families.
Lower East Side
Every school in District 1 (except some charters) offers pre-kindergarten. There are no zoned schools, so once you are accepted into pre-k, you are guaranteed admission to kindergarten too. Want a progressive approach? We love Neighborhood School, which atypically mixes pre-kindergarten and kindergarten in one room. The Children's Workshop School prides itself on its diversity among staff and students and has two classrooms. Students who qualify for free or reduced lunch and English language learners will have priority for half the seats. PS 63 William McKinley—STAR Academy has a hands-on math program in which little kids explore numbers, patterns and shapes, plus big words like "hexagon" and "pentagon." Bank Street Head Start is a delightful, play-based program that gives preference to low-income families and has had room in recent years for families from higher income levels.
Upper East Side, Midtown and Downtown
District 2 has some of the best schools in the city and it's hard to go wrong with pre-k. PS 126 is a small progressive school with strong sports and arts programs. PS 33 accepted some in-district, non-sibling kids last year. PS 340, Sixth Avenue Elementary School accepted only a few children outside of its zone but take a look at the pre-k center in the same building. We liked the pre-k center at PS 51 when we visited in 2016, and parents rave about pre-k centers at Peck Slip and on Chambers Street. New pre-k classrooms are opening at PS 59, PS 6 and PS 290, topnotch schools that haven't historically had space for pre-k.
Upper West Side and Harlem
Most District 3 schools have far more applicants than seats. In Harlem, we were impressed by PS 185's engineering program including a LEGO Lab. PS 180 had space for children from across the district. If you're willing to travel, the pre-k center at PS 51, listed above, had room to spare, possibly a result of its out-of-the-way location on 44th Street, west of 10th Avenue. Three classrooms not listed in the directory are opening at popular PS 452, which will be located at 210 West 61st Street.
Our picks in District 4 are sweet, safe PS 112, led by longtime principal Eileen Reiter, and tiny, progressive River East, open district-wide. They are in the same building. There was some room for non-sibling, in-district kids at respected PS 171.
There's positive buzz circling around PS 125 in District 5, which offers swimming, yoga, blocks, LEGOs and has a multi-racial parent community working together. A fixture in the Harlem community, Addie Mae Collins 3 (which takes low-income families first), takes kids on trips to the New York Aquarium, the American Museum of Natural History and other cultural institutions.
Washington Heights and Inwood
Some of the most sought-after schools in District 6 have far more applicants than seats. PS 173 has a new popular principal and the school took kids from out of the borough last year. Early childhood expert Kym Vanderbilt says Fort George Head Start, for low-income families, is "very good." She also recommends the Children's Aid Society pre-k programs at PS 5 and PS 8. A new pre-k class is opening at PS/IS 187 in Washington Heights. Progressive Castle Bridge gives priority to students who qualify for receive free and reduced lunch for 60 percent of its seats. Children from families impacted by incarceration have priority for 10 percent of seats.