A version of this story ran in February 2019. It has been updated with new information for 2020.

If you want to explore options beyond your neighborhood elementary or middle school you may want to enter a lottery for a charter school. There are also some charter high schools open to students applying for 9th or 10th grade. The deadline to enter the lottery for most charter schools is by April 1, so now is a good time to apply. Get an application on the New York City Charter School Center website, on the individual schools' websites or in person at the school.

You can find out more by reading our charter school profiles and reviews online. Also be sure to check out our Charter School page for a rundown of what to expect from the charter school networks.

Here are tips for making your choice.

  1. Understand what a “charter” means. Charter schools are free, experimental public schools that operate independently of the local districts under a "charter" from the state Board of Regents, the State University of New York (SUNY), or the city Department of Education. Some are very successful, while others are no better (or even worse) than ordinary public schools. Most are located in low-income neighborhoods, although there are a handful in middle class neighborhoods.

  2. Consider all your options—not just charters. Charters are only one alternative to your zoned neighborhood school. You may also want to consider gifted and talented programs, dual language programs, magnet schools and unzoned schools. Ordinary neighborhood schools sometimes have room for children outside their zone.

  3. Decide whether you want a traditional or progressive school. Some schools have a back-to-basics curriculum. Kids may sit at desks in rows and follow very strict rules. Others encourage children to explore their own interests. Children may call teachers by their first names and sprawl on rugs on the floor. Your values—not to mention your child’s personality—will help you decide.

  4. Think about your attitudes toward discipline. Some charters have very strict rules about discipline, uniforms, homework—even when children are allowed to use the toilet. They sometimes ask children to leave if they do not meet the school’s standards for behavior, attendance and academic progress. Others are more forgiving. Check out Advocates for Children's guide to Charter School Discipline.

  5. Think about recess. Some schools encourage recess and free play; others focus strictly on academics. Is there outdoor space? Use of a gym? Are children permitted to talk and move around at lunchtime?

  6. Does your child have special needs? According to state law, charter schools must accept all children who gain a seat via the lottery and are supposed to give them the special education services they need. Unfortunately, not all of them do. Some welcome children with disabilities; others do not. Call to find out what their approach is. Many charter schools team up with other public schools to provide services; others integrate all children with two teachers in every classroom. Read Advocate for Children's helpful guide about the rights of children with disabilities at charter schools.

  7. Decide whether an extra-long school day is good for your child. Many charters have longer school days and a longer school year than other public schools. Some parents love having free after-school academics and enrichment; others say children get tired after many hours in school.

  8. Decide whether you want a network or a “mom and pop” school. Some charters are part of networks, like Achievement First or Success Academy. Every school in the network is very similar, and decisions about how to run them are generally made by the network. Others charters, usually founded by a community organization, are more independent. These schools, sometimes called “mom and pops,” have more flexibility about the programs they offer.

  9. Narrow your search. You probably want a school close to home, and your child has a better chance of being admitted to a school in your home district.

  10. Read our school profiles. We’ve been to many charter schools. Read what we learned on our visits—and what other parents have to say. You can also look at our slideshows.