NEW YORK — When young families move to Park Slope, many try to find an apartment near the sought-after P.S. 321, one of the highest performing public elementary schools in the city.
But with median home prices in the P.S. 321 zone hovering just under $1 million, according to StreetEasy, some families inevitably discover that they can't afford an apartment in the tony brownstone neighborhood.
“People call from Manhattan, and all they’ve heard about is P.S. 321,” said Judith Lief, an associate broker at Warren Lewis Sotheby's International. "The first thing I do is say, 'There are other schools in the neighborhood — why don’t you check them out?'"
It's a dilemma parents face all across the city: How much are you willing or able to spend to live in a neighborhood zoned for a big-name public school? And how much are you willing to risk by sending your kids to an up-and-coming school that may have lower test scores or a smaller budget?
Joyce Szuflita, who founded NYC School Help and advises families on public and private school admissions, frequently helps parents negotiate those tradeoffs.
"Many of them say, 'Of course we've heard about [P.S.] 321 and other strong programs, but we can't afford an apartment there, or there are no properties available,'" Szuflita said. "'We like that neighborhood — what are the options?'"
Szuflita closely tracks up-and-coming schools in Brooklyn's more affordable neighborhoods, noting which ones have a new, progressive principal and which ones have received grants to launch enrichment programs.
A school's reputation — and the surrounding real estate prices — can take years to catch up to the school's quality, which means there are plenty of good deals available for those willing to go out on a limb, experts say.
"I'm talking to them about everything from the schools everyone knows about to the real wild cards that maybe very few people know about," Szuflita said. "It depends on the family's feeling — how much they're willing to gamble on an emerging program."
In Park Slope, parents suggest P.S. 10 Magnet School for Math, Science & Technology, at Seventh Avenue and 17th Street, as a strong alternative to P.S. 321.
The school's South Slope neighborhood is more affordable than prime Park Slope, with median home prices running about $100,00 cheaper than the P.S. 321 zone, according to StreetEasy.
P.S. 10 earned an A on its most recent Department of Education progress report, with an A in both student performance and school environment, which measures satisfaction among parents.
The school is led by well-respected Principal Laura Scott, known for creating an inviting and collaborative atmosphere for teachers, students and parents, said PTA co-president Amy Schwartzman.
“Although we’re a school that has 905 students, it still feels like a very small place,” said Schwartzman, who has a second-grader at P.S. 10.
P.S. 10 has a strong arts program and recently hired a retired P.S. 321 teacher to work individually with third-graders on reading and writing, parents said.
Parents also like that P.S. 10 is markedly more diverse than P.S. 321. In the 2010-11 school year, 72 percent of students at P.S. 10 were eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch, and the student body was 41 percent white, 38 percent Latino and 14 percent African American, according to city figures.
At P.S. 321, in contrast, just 9 percent of kids were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and the student body was 72 percent white, 11 percent Latino and 10 percent African American, city figures show.
While many schools in Park Slope are overcrowded, there is plenty of room in most elementary schools in Greenpoint and Williamsburg, which means that families in northern Brooklyn don't necessarily have to live in a school's zone to win a seat.
That gives families more flexibility on where they live — and how much they want to pay for an apartment — as long as they are willing to travel a bit to go to school.
One new program Szuflita recommends is just beginning to gain recognition: P.S. 414 The Brooklyn Arbor School.
P.S. 414 just opened on South Third Street in the fall of 2012 with kindergarten to second grade, drawing parents with small class sizes, an environmental focus and a strong art program.
Each class has its own garden in front of the school, and after-school clubs include everything from chess to sewing, parents said.
The school has plenty of available seats, so families who live anywhere in Williamsburg and Greenpoint's District 14 will likely be able to win a spot — and there may even be room for some children from the more affordable District 32, which covers Bushwick, parents said.
Other up-and-coming schools in the area include P.S. 257 on Cook Street in Bushwick, which recently became a performing arts magnet, and P.S. 17 on North Fifth Street in Williamsburg, where Principal Robert Marchi, who won the prestigious Cahn Fellow award from Columbia University, is known for welcoming students with special needs.
Across the bridge in Manhattan, neighborhoods from TriBeCa to the Upper West Side are known for attracting families drawn to stellar public schools — and willing to pay top-shelf prices for real estate.
But there are also still plenty of relative bargains in the borough, without sacrificing the quality of education, parents and brokers said.
P.S. 116 on East 33rd Street in Kips Bay is a perennial parent favorite, scoring an A on its most recent progress report and offering after-school programs ranging from chess to violin lessons.
And median home prices in P.S. 116's zone are relatively affordable, averaging $995 per square foot or about $695,000 overall, significantly less than in neighboring Midtown East and Gramercy, according to StreetEasy.
Marlow Bamberger, a mother of two and the PTA president at P.S. 116, said she moved to the area in 2000, before she and her husband had children, strictly for the neighborhood's affordability.
The pair were thrilled when they later realized that they had purchased an apartment just steps from a high-quality elementary school, and they've stayed in the same building for the past 13 years.
“Real estate [in this neighborhood] by far is definitely lower than almost any part of the city where a good school is located,” Bamberger said. “That’s what makes [P.S. 116] the best, is when you couple it with the real estate."
On the Upper West Side, families that don't want to pay for an apartment in the pricey zone for well-regarded P.S. 87 on West 78th Street can move farther north and apply to one of the district's magnet schools.
One school with a growing reputation is P.S. 145, the Magnet School for Technology and Multimedia Communication, which got a federal grant to build a computer lab and buy cameras and multimedia equipment.
"We are increasingly becoming popular," said Principal Ivelisse Alvarez, who has been at the school for nine years.
Parents say they are impressed by the high-tech equipment the young students learn to use.
"It's changed for the better — there are more programs and opportunities," said Christina Padilla, the grandmother of a fourth-grader, who said her husband attended P.S. 145 about 50 years ago.
"He’s working with cameras," Padilla said of her 8-year-old grandson. "It’s opening up his mind."
The school generally accepts all students who apply and has not yet had to hold a lottery, making it a good option for those who want to be guaranteed a seat, staff and parents said.
In Lower Manhattan, Terry Lautin, vice president and associate broker at Town Residential, recommends that families look to the Financial District and Chinatown for relative deals in strong school zones.
A few buildings in the Financial District are still offering large apartments for less than $1,000 per square foot, landing families in the zone for P.S. 276 in Battery Park City, which has a strong environmental science program and allows students to stay in the same school from kindergarten through eighth grade.
Lautin also recommends Chinatown for affordable real estate and more traditional public schools, like P.S. 130 on Baxter Street, where students wear uniforms.
But the cheaper apartments may be smaller or in older buildings, a tradeoff some families will be unwilling to make, Lautin said.
"New condos tend to be expensive no matter where they are in Manhattan," she said.
With reporting by Leslie Albrecht, Meredith Hoffman, Emily Frost and Mary Johnson