Is your child turning four-years-old  this year? The pre-kindergarten admissions process for next fall begins Monday, March 7 with  applications due by April 8.  All children who turn four in 2011 are eligible for public pre-K, although they are not guaranteed a seat. For newcomers to the process, the Department of Education is hosting information sessions in each borough, from March 7-9.

Applications, and directories listing every program will be online and available at elementary schools or at local enrollment offices beginning on March 7.

Pre-Ks are housed in public schools or at community-based organizations. (State funding requires that districts collaborate with community based groups to expand pre-K opportunities.)  Some programs are full-day (six hour and 20 minutes); others are half-day (2.5 hour morning or afternoon programs.)   Most classes, by state mandate, have 18 students, with one teacher and one para-professional.<!--more-->

All programs are supposed to meet learning standards set by the New York State Education Department and the New York City Department of Education.

The application process differs slightly depending on where a program is housed.

Public schools

You  may apply for pre-K programs housed in public schools online, in person at an enrollment center, or by mail. You can list up to 12 schools in one submission and rank them by order of preference. At most schools you will have to re-apply for kindergarten.

Students with siblings who attend a school receive first priority; of those, families who live in the school zone receive first dibs in most cases. (There are a few places where this is not the case, such as Manhattan’s District 1 which has no zoned schools.)  Students without sibling preference are also ranked according to whether or not they live in the zone, or district and whether or not their zoned school offers pre-K. Admissions priorities are detailed in the Chancellor's Regulation on admissions.

Community-Based Organizations (CBOs) - not always free

Applications for pre-K programs housed in CBOs are not handled by the DOE, although they are listed in the directory.   You must apply for each CBO program separately and deliver that application to the program’s site (no mail or online submissions).

Although  the DOE maintains that all pre-K programs are free,  we encountered a somewhat different reality. For instance, programs housed at Head Start or daycare facilities might be free for the 2.5  hour program, but kids are required to take "wrap around services," that is to stay for the rest of the day's activities. And these are not free --- most  charge a sliding scale fee based on family income.  A program can be embedded in a private school, such as a Montessori school where tuition can reach $16,000 with a $3000 reimbursement for the publicly funded part of the day, but kids must attend a full day and pay tuition.  There are programs in Y's and community centers that are completely free, but some directors fear that the budget shortfalls may soon require payment of some sort.

The disparities result from various contractual  arrangements  that the DOE negotiates with CBOs and agencies.  Many day care and Head Start programs are reserved for poverty level families; others serve mostly low-income families but are required to  reserve 10% of their pre-K spots for "over income families," according to Dominique West, director of operations in the  DOE's  Early Childhood Office. As long as there are openings in free pre-k programs around the city, the state does not object to fee-based or tuition- based pre-K, she said.

The pre-K directory you pick up at a school or online will not tell you whether the program is free or or fee-based   -- when parents contact CBO program directly (as they must to apply) they should ask if there are income or other eligibility requirements.

Whether you are applying to programs in public schools or at a community organization, it's a good idea to visit before applying. Most schools and daycare centers will arrange a tour. Take a look at our tips on what to look for when applying to pre-K.

And, parents who have been through this process before, please share your insights.