For the first time ever families in three school districts that no longer have zoned elementary schools may apply to kindergarten online, over the phone or in person at an enrollment offices, the Department of Education said this week.

District 1 on the Lower East Side has long been a "choice" district, with no zoned schools. In November, Community Education Councils (CECs) in two other small districts, District 7 in the South Bronx and District 23 in Brownsville, voted to do away with zoned elementary schools, exercising one of the few real powers that CECs have.

The DOE just centralized the application process in the three districts, making it similar to pre-kindergarten admissions. There is only one application, with parents rankings schools in order of preference. In the city's other 28 districts, parents apply for kindergarten individually at each school, even their zoned school.

"The single application is more convenient for all families," said Gentian Falstrom, director of elementary school enrollment for the DOE. Many children in districts 7 and 23 already attend schools outside their zone. Unlike neighborhoods in the city where the schools are overcrowded, many schools in the South Bronx and Brownsville have extra room for students.

"This was the choice that we made based on our conversations with parents," said Neyda Franco, president of the District 7 CEC. "We spoke to parents who were having trouble getting into schools that they weren't zoned for," she said. Parents were "stuck in failing schools," and couldn't get into schools that were closer to their babysitters or jobs.  She hopes that doing away with zones will give parents more choice and help hold school accountable as parents vote with their feet.

Throughout the city, families apply to kindergarten from Jan. 22 to March 1. What's different in districts 1, 7 and 23 is that families may phone in their choices to the central enrollment office, or apply online. CEC members say that much outreach is needed to make parents aware of the new process. Many parents in District 7 cannot read or write and do not have Internet access, said Franco. There is only one library in the South Bronx with limited computers. The district office will remain open late on some evenings to help parents with the process, the district family advocate said.

The three unzoned districts are among the smallest in the city, and districts 7 and 23 are among the lowest performing. District 7 has only 17 schools and District 23 has 15.  Neither district offered a gifted and talented programs this year because not enough children qualified. Very few schools received "A" on their Progress Reports and many get low marks on safety and discipline on parent surveys. That data and other information provided by each school is listed in a district directory. Schools are supposed to offer tours or open houses for prospective parents, said Falstrom, and there will be district fairs in February. The DOE asked community groups to help inform parents, who may be unaware of the changes and who often wait until September to enroll their children. Even if there are challenges with the new system, parents say it is welcome.

"We need change," said Saran McGlothin, a member of District 7 CEC. "There's too much failure in our district. This eliminates a lot of restrictions and it broadens options for us."

If children aren't matched to their first choice school, they will automatically be placed on a waitlist for the schools higher on their list, Falstrom said. Schools will manage the waitlists and contact parents as seats become available. Parents outside the districts may also apply to schools in those districts but they will have a lower priority in admissions.

The District 7 fair will be held from 6 to 8 pm at PS 5 Port Morrison Feb. 6; in District 23 the fair will be held on Feb. 7 at PS 156 Waverly School.