The city doesn't have room in its neighborhood schools for all the city's 4-year-olds. To create more seats, it contracts with child-care centers, private nursery schools, religious schools and community centers. In addition, the city has established freestanding "pre-k centers," which children attend for just one year.
While some ordinary neighborhood schools have pre-kindergarten, the bulk of seats are in these other locations. Your child is guaranteed a seat somewhere but there is no guarantee you will get your first choice. No transportation is provided (except for children with special needs and those in temporary housing).
Child-care centers are designed for working parents and are open year-round, usually from 8 am to 6 pm. The city pays for 6 hours and 20 minutes, 180 days a year, the same as the public school calendar. Parents must pay for the remaining hours; however the cost is much less than at centers that do not participate in public pre-kindergarten programs. Also called Early Childhood Centers, these tend to have more experience caring for young children than elementary schools and may have more flexibility in routines. For example, a child who is tired may be permitted to nap rather than take part in an activity. Some child-care centers charge parents on a sliding scale depending on their income; some limit enrollment to low-income families.
Head Start Centers, part of the 50-year-old federal anti-poverty program, give priority to low-income families. The hours tend to be longer than an ordinary public school but shorter than child-care centers. The Head Start programs we have visited are of high quality.
Private and religious schools sometimes contract with the city to offer free pre-kindergarten classes. To meet the city requirements for separation of church and state, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim schools do not offer religious instruction during the hours of public pre-kindergarten. However, they may offer religious instruction outside those hours. Some of the private preschools give preference to children who are already enrolled in their classes for 3-year-olds; so if you are applying for one of those pre-k spots for the first time when your child is 4, you may be out of luck.
Charter schools offer pre-kindergarten in some cases. Contact the schools directly or fill out the online application at http://www.nyccharterschools.org.
Public elementary schools offer pre-kindergarten if they have room. The most popular and overcrowded elementary schools simply don’t have space; some may have just 18 seats in pre-kindergarten and more than 100 seats in kindergarten.
Pre-k Centers were set up by the Department of Education as a way to expand the number of seats available in school districts that had little room in their ordinary public schools. Some of these are housed in a leased space; some are housed in new public school buildings that are not yet at full capacity. They have as many as 10 pre-kindergarten classes in one location, and children stay at these schools for just one year. The pre-k centers we have visited are of high quality. Their teachers are certified and regular employees of the Department of Education.