Free public education in New York City begins at age 4 for most children. Every 4-year-old is guaranteed a seat either in a regular public school or in a private childcare center, religious school, or commmunity center.
Unlike kindergarten, children in pre-kindergarten are not guaranteed a seat in their zoned neighborhood school. In fact, less than 50 percent of the pre-k seats are in public school buildings.
Some very popular schools may have hundreds of applicants for a handful of seats. These typically only accept siblings of children who are already enrolled.
Programs for 3-year-olds, called 3-K, are available in some school districts (4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 16, 19, 23, 27, 31 and 32) that encompass neighborhoods including the South Bronx, Central Harlem, East Harlem and Washington Heights in Manhattan, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick, East New York and Ocean Hill-Brownsville in Brooklyn, Southeast Queens and Staten Island.
Who may attend
Any child who lives in New York City and turns 4 before Dec. 31 is entitled to attend pre-kindergarten that year; that is, a child with a fall birthday may start school in September when he is still 3. Most children attend pre-kindergarten 6 hours and 20 minutes a day, 180 days a year—the same schedule as older children. Each class has two adults and 18 children.
The city has a limited number of seats for 3-year-olds. The school day and year are the same as for pre-k. Children who turn 3 before Dec. 31 may apply. Children do not have to be toilet trained. Each class has two adults and 15 children.
How to apply to pre-k
You may apply online starting in early February, in person at a Family Welcome Center, or by telephone: (718) 935-2009. Application deadlines change from year to year. The 2020 application deadline for pre-k is March 16; for 3-K the deadline is April 24. You'll find out your placement in May.
It doesn't hurt to apply to a program where space is tight if you love it: If you're not matched in this first application round, your name will be automatically put on a waitlist for all the choices you listed above the one you got. You may call the school to let them know you are interested. Be polite, persistent and patient. Spaces frequently open up in the summer or even in the fall.
If you miss the first deadline, you may apply in the “second round” in May. If you move to the city after the application process is complete, go directly to a Family Welcome Center, or telephone (718) 935-2009.
Once your child is matched with a pre-k program, you will need to go to the school to register in person with your child. You will need to bring the child’s birth certificate or passport, immunization records, and proof of residence. You do not need a green card or a social security number but you do need a document with your address on it, such as a lease or a recent gas and electric bill.