Kindergarten to 5th grade
Your child is entitled to attend kindergarten the year he or she turns five. (If your child has his birthday in late September, October, November or December, he may begin school in September when he is still four.) For information on how to enroll, see our page on New to NYC or call the Department of Education at (718) 935-2009.
You may "apply" to kindergarten at any public school but your child will usually be assigned to a school according to your address - that is, your zoned school. If your zoned neighborhood school is overcrowded, your child may be assigned to a school with more space. Call the parent coordinator at your neighborhood school to see if there is typically a waiting list for kindergarten. Remember, you are guaranteed a seat in kindergarten.
Special education services and English as a Second Language are available in your neighborhood school.
If you are unsatisfied with your zoned school, you may want to consider other options.
Some public schools have pre-kindergarten classes for 4-year-olds. Pre-kindergarten classes tend to be concentrated in high-poverty areas.
Apply to kindergarten
Your 5-year-old is guaranteed a seat in kindergarten whenever you register—whether months in advance, the first day of school or even after the school year has begun. Most schools offer tours in November, December and January with applications due on Jan. 15 in 2016. In 2013, the Department of Education introduced an online application called Kindergarten Connect. Parents fill out a single application, listing up to 12 schools and may apply online, on the telephone or in person at a Family Welcome Center. You will learn about your child's placement in March. If you don't get your top choice you will be automatically waitlisted at all the schools you ranked higher on the application. Families who do not apply during that period will still be able to register for kindergarten after January, either at an Family Welcome Center or at the school. For more information and the timeline, see the DOE's website or call 718-935-2009.
Your child is guaranteed a seat in your zoned neighborhood school, space permitting. (Call 311 to find out which school that is.) Some very popular schools are so overcrowded that they cannot accommodate all the children who live in their zone. In these cases, the schools maintain waiting lists. Many children are eventually admitted as families who originally enrolled their children move out of the city or opt for private school or gifted programs. If there's no space, the Office of Student Enrollment may send your child to another school in your district but you'll have the option to try again in 1st grade.
There are three districts which no longer have zoned elementary schools: Districts 1 (Lower East Side), 7 (South Bronx) and 23 (East New York, Brooklyn). Families may apply to any school in the district. Admission is decided by lottery within Department of Education priority guidelines.
What to look for in a school
You will certainly want to check out your neighborhood school before you enroll your child. You may also want to tour other schools that your child may be eligible to attend. On your visits, consider the following:
Close to home or far away?
Little kids tire easily, and a long commute to school will be difficult, particularly in the winter. If they get sick during the day, who will take them home? If they go to a school far from home, will they have friends in the neighborhood? That said, many parents happily trade a short commute for a superior education. For information about transportation, see the Department of Education Office of Pupil Transportation.
Does the school challenge strong students and give extra help when needed?
If every child reads the same book at the same time every day, watch out. If one child is reading a chapter of Charlotte’s Web while another is reading a simple book like Frog and Toad, that’s a sign that the school adapts to children of different abilities. All children have strengths and weaknesses: you don’t want a one-size-fits all curriculum.
Are the children happy?
The nicest schools make you slightly envious of your child. You'll wish you were 5 years old again so you could start kindergarten. Does the school seem like a friendly or forbidding place? Is it clean and orderly?
Are parents welcome?
Is the principal's door really open to parents? Are there events parents are invited to throughout the year?
What is the principal like?
A good principal can transform a mediocre school into a gem in just a few years. A bad principal can dismantle good programs and demoralize a competent staff just as quickly. What good principals have in common is an abiding respect for the pupils in their care, a respect that is obvious even on a brief tour. It's fine to be strict, but watch out for principals who yell at kids or who regularly use a bullhorn to keep order. A principal should be not merely an administrator, but an educational leader who can articulate his or her vision for the school and help the staff carry it out.
Are there examples of children's work?
Look for children's work (not decorations made by the teacher or provided by a textbook company) displayed on the bulletin boards and walls, preferably not identical shapes cut from construction paper, but work that shows individual thought and creativity. Look for examples of children's writing, even in the earliest grades. Good schools have plenty of fun-to-read books—not textbooks—but picture books as well as novels, books about historical events, biographies and science discovery books. Good schools have plenty of things children can touch and feel in math and science. Look for classrooms with live animals, plants, fish tanks and materials such as magnets and electric motors.
How well do children do on standardized tests?
There’s been far too much emphasis placed on standardized tests in recent years. Still, it’s worth seeing if most of the children meet state standards for reading and math.
Who may attend
Any child between the ages of 5 and 21 who has not graduated from high school is entitled to a free public education.
This includes undocumented immigrants, children with disabilities, children who do not speak English, pregnant girls, homeless children, and older teenagers who may have dropped out of school.
School officials must find a space for your child without delay. If there is no room in your neighborhood school, your child may be assigned to another school.
Kindergarten is a right. Children have the right to enroll in school in September of the year they turn 5. They are not required to attend school until they are 6 years old. (There are a limited number of free pre-kindergarten programs for 4-year-olds.)
You do not need a green card or a Social Security number to register your child.
You may not register or apply to schools until you actually live in the city.
Students learning English
Children who don't speak English well are entitled to special classes in English as a second language (ESL). When your child starts school, teachers will give her a test to see if she needs help improving her English. Parents who don't speak English are entitled to translations of all important documents and interpreters for meetings with teachers and school staff.
If your child receives ESL instruction, she will generally attend regular classes with English-speaking children for most of the day. She will get extra help for an hour or more a day from a specially trained ESL teacher. Almost all schools in the city offer ESL instruction.
If you prefer, your child may be able to attend bilingual classes. Bilingual classes offer students instruction in English part of the day and in their native language the rest of the day. This allows students to make progress in academic subjects like math and science in their native language while they are learning English. This is also called "transitional bilingual" because children gradually use more English and less of their native language. Not all schools offer bilingual instruction, but if at least 15 children in the same grade speak the same language the school is supposed to offer it.
Some schools also offer dual-language classes. These schools teach children to read, write and speak fluently in both English and another language. Generally, half the students are native speakers of English while half speak the other language (Spanish, Chinese, French, Haitian Creole, Russian or Korean). Dual-language programs allow children to maintain and perfect their native language while learning English, and allow English speakers to become fluent in a second language.
Almost every school in the city has at least a few children who are learning English, but there are several dozen schools designed especially for English language learners (ELLs), including older students who are new to the United States. Look for the "new immigrants" icon on the "Find a School" advanced-search function.
If you have trouble getting the classes you think your child needs, call the Advocates for Children hotline, (866) 427-6033, Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.