Who may attend
All children are eligible to attend a free pre-kindergarten program in New York City the year they turn 4. Programs start in the fall, so children with a fall birthday will be 3 years old when they begin.
While the number of programs has increased dramatically since 2014, demand still exceeds the supply of seats in some neighborhoods. You may have to travel to find a spot for your child. (Unfortunately, the city does not provide transportation for pre-k students, with the exception of students attending special education programs.)
In an attempt to provide as many seats as possible as quickly as possible, the city is housing pre-kindergarten classes in a variety of places including public schools, religious schools, private nursery schools, child care centers and settlement houses.
Most programs are full day (6 hours 20 minutes) and run 180 days a year just like the regular public school calendar year. Some are half day (2 hours and 30 minutes).
Some of the programs offer child care before and after school and during school vacations, and holidays. However, there is a fee for the extra hours.
How to apply
Applications are available on January 17 (for 2017) and due by February 24, 2016. You can apply online, by phone at (718) 935-2067, or in person at a family welcome center. You'll learn where your child is accepted in late April and must register by early May.
To register, go to the school in person with your child, the child's birth certificate or passport, immunization records, and proof of NYC residence such as a recent utility bill. You do not need a green card or a social security number to register.
A word about waitlists
Popular schools have long waitlists, while others never fill up.
If you don't get your top choice, you will automatically be waitlisted there and for any school listed above the one you got into. If you did not apply to a school you like, you can still apply after the deadline and get on a waitlist.
A tip: Be persistent and patient. Some seats open up in September and October when, for example, a family moves. Schools receive budgets according to how many children are enrolled on Oct. 31, so the staff is eager to fill any empty seats. Make sure your favorite school knows you still want a seat.
What to look for in a pre-kindergarten
Close to home or far away?
Little kids tire easily, and a long commute to school will be difficult, particularly in the winter. Who will take them home if they get sick during the day? Will weekend or after-school playdates be possible? Still, some parents find good programs near their work, or near a grandmother who can pick them up after school.
Are the children safe?
Is the class clean and orderly or does it have an air of neglect— dusty shelves, torn books and dying plants? Is there a safe, fenced-in playground? Look for a bathroom in the room or no more than three doors away. You don't want to see exposed extension cords and outlets. You can find information on safety and cleanliness by checking out the inspection history of pre-k sites online.
Is the teacher effective?
A good pre-k teacher should be talking to kids and listening to them, repeating back words and full sentences—upping the ante when it comes to language. They should be able to maintain an orderly and predictable routine to help kids feel safe and secure.
Are parents welcome?
You can tell a lot from the moment you step inside a building. Does someone say hello? Do you feel security is thorough? Is there information for parents on display and is there a place to sit and wait? Parents should feel welcome to take part in the life of the school, whether it's attending an event, taking care of the class pet over the holiday or volunteering to read a book to the class.
What is the program leader or principal like?
You want someone who is approachable and easy-to-find, not hidden behind a door. A strong leader brings out the best in each member of the school community. The principal or director should either know something about early childhood or be in communication with an expert in the building.
Are there examples of children's work?
Look for children's work on display, not decorations made by the teacher. Ideally, the work should show individual creativity. You don't want to see lots of fill-in-the-blank worksheets, but kids may be beginning to draw, write letters, or sound out words and label their pictures. Are there science explorations—like drawings of leaves or a graph to show how many seeds are in an apple?
An exciting, orderly classroom
Kids like to explore in a well-organized classroom. Good pre-k's have fun-to-read books and objects organized in baskets on shelves to help them investigate patterns, numbers and shapes. Instead of tracing their names over and over, kids can strengthen their hand muscles for writing by squeezing clay, cutting paper and stretching small hands around big blocks. Look for classrooms with live animals, Legos, water tables, plants and fish tanks to spark curiosity. Tables and rugs give kids choices of where to work. It's great to see a mini kitchen, hospital or wood shop area where children can dress-up and say new words like "construction" and "stethoscope."
A well-balanced day
Often you will see a schedule of the day posted on the wall. Look for a routine with a mix of active and quiet activities. There should be a time to rest in full-day programs but not enforced naptime. Kids should have time to play outside every day and time to explore, often called "choice" or "center" time. All pre-k children eat lunch in the classroom, "family style," where they can chat with friends and practice good manners.
Opportunities to be independent
Look for how teachers foster independence. Children are able to hang up their own coats, help prepare and serve breakfast or lunch, clean up after themselves, and put on their own coats and shoes. Good pre-k's often label objects so kids can begin to pair objects and words, and provide them with step-by-step pictures for procedures like hand washing. These activities instill good habits.