Click on a neighborhood to see information about its pre-K programs: Downtown, Greenwich Village/SoHo, Lower East Side/East Village, Murray Hill/Gramercy, Chelsea/Hell's Kitchen, Upper West Side, Upper East Side, Harlem, Washington Heights/Inwood. Please note that Midtown does not offer any public school pre-K programs.
By Leslie Albrecht and Julie Shapiro
MANHATTAN — The race is on for public pre-K seats.
Parents whose children turn 4 this year can begin applying to Manhattan's dozens of free pre-K programs March 7. But they will likely face big competition for the seats, as in past years several schools have received hundreds more applications than they can accommodate.
"The demand is definitely higher than the supply," said Shino Tanikawa, a SoHo parent and education activist. "We've had to eliminate pre-K programs in so many schools because of overcrowding."
The Department of Education uses a complex system of priorities to allot the coveted slots, which include half-day and full-day programs. First priority goes to younger siblings of current students in the school, then to children who live in the school's zone, then to those who live in the school's district and finally to those who live in its borough.
Many of the most popular schools often nearly fill up just with siblings of current students. While parents can list up to 12 choices on their application, they are not guaranteed to receive a seat in any of them.
For parents who live in areas with especially crowded schools, it might be worth looking at programs in Harlem, where at least 10 programs boast a 50 percent acceptance rate or better. And some programs, like the pre-K at P.S. 200 in Hamilton Heights, even had extra spaces available last year.
For the 2010-2011 year, the Manhattan school that received the most applications was P.S. 9 on the Upper West Side, which got 538 requests for just 36 seats. P.S. 87, also on the Upper West Side, boasted the lowest admissions rate — just 4 percent of the children who applied won a spot, making it harder to get into than Harvard.
Other pre-K options include free programs at community-based organizations, which each have their own admissions process, and paid programs at private schools, which often cost tens of thousands of dollars per year.
The public school pre-K applications will be available online Monday, at borough enrollment offices and at elementary schools with pre-K programs. The applications are due April 8, and the city will mail offer letters at the beginning of June.
Despite this year's tight budget, it appears that the state and city are not cutting pre-K funding, said Nancy Kolben, executive director of the Center for Children's Initiatives, an organization that counsels parents on early education options.
Kolben said pre-K is one of the most important stages of children's education, as they learn to work in a group and navigate a larger world.
"The research is now really, really clear that birth to 5 is the time of greatest growth in brain development," Kolben said. "The pre-K experience is a critical component of helping prepare children to be ready for school."
Parents sometimes apply to a pre-K program thinking it will better their child's chances at getting a seat in the school's kindergarten, but that is a misconception, said Terri Decker, an educational adviser at Smart City Kids, a service for parents going through the schools admission process.
"Parents should know that even if you lottery into the pre-K, it doesn't guarantee you a seat at the kindergarten," Decker said.
Also, parents should be careful not to judge schools too quickly when searching for a pre-K program, said Robin Aronow, founder of School Search NYC, which advises parents on school admissions.
"If parents can't afford private nursery schools and really want their children in a public pre-K, they need to be open to looking at a variety of pre-Ks at schools they might not have considered," Aronow said.
She tells parents to tour schools and ask for the names of one or two parents whose children are in pre-K.
"Don't be afraid to ask for both the strengths and weaknesses of the pre-K," Aronow said. "The bottom line is parents need to feel comfortable sending their child to school each day."
One drawback to public pre-K programs is that many of them are half-day. That's not helpful for families that need to keep their children occupied from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
"For parents who are looking for a full day, who might have had their child in a full-day childcare situation, public school might not be what they're looking for," Decker said.
The city will hold information sessions about pre-K applications next week in each of the boroughs. The Manhattan information session will be held March 9 from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at Brandeis High School, 145 W. 84th St.
In lower Manhattan, some of the pre-K programs have been eaten up by budget cuts and overcrowding in the past several years, and those that remain receive many more applications than they have seats.
"Parents are stressed out about trying to get their children into school," said Rosario Castronovo, whose daughter attended pre-K at P.S. 150 in TriBeCa two years ago. "It's an arduous process. It's the not knowing…A lot of parents just send their kids to private school."
The popular P.S. 234 in TriBeCa lost its pre-K program recently because of the need for more school seats for their K-5th grade classes.
P.S. 150, which is nearby in Independence Plaza North, still offers a program, but children have better odds of getting into an Ivy League college. Last year, the cozy school received 296 applications for just 18 seats, according to the Department of Education. This fall, 12 to 14 of the 18 available seats will go to siblings of current students, Castronovo said.
Parents are drawn to P.S. 150 for the school's friendly, tight-knit atmosphere and its focus on the arts. The only complaint on parent forums at InsideSchools.org is that the facilities are small and do not include a gym.
The newest pre-K downtown will be at the Spruce Street School in the base of Frank Gehry's new 76-story skyscraper. Spruce is moving into its spacious new home in the fall of 2011 and will offer 72 pre-K seats, all half-day, the DOE said. This will be the first year that Spruce offers pre-K.
The greenest pre-K in Manhattan is at P.S. 276 in southern Battery Park City, which moved into an $81 million environmentally friendly building in the fall of 2010. The "green" theme of the school extends even into the pre-K, where students learn about science and the seasons, along with participating in dramatic play and taking music, according to the school's newsletter.
Last year, P.S. 276 received 281 applications for 72 seats.
In SoHo and Greenwich Village, parents have very few options for free, public pre-K programs.
Because of overcrowding, P.S. 3 on Hudson Street and P.S. 41 on W. 11th Street both had to surrender their pre-K programs several years ago, said Tanikawa, the SoHo parent and activist.
But last fall, P.S. 3 was able to open five sections of pre-K (one full day and four half day) because the school had extra space after the Greenwich Village Middle School, which previously shared the building, moved down to the Financial District, Tanikawa said.
P.S. 3 received 477 applications for those 90 seats last fall, according to DOE figures.
Tanikawa said there is great need for more pre-K seats in the neighborhood, especially because parents do not want to travel miles away to take young children to school.
"People want to stay in the neighborhood," she said. "It doesn't help Village parents if seats are available up at 59th Street and Second Avenue."
Greenwich Village and SoHo also do not have any community-based organizations that provide free pre-K, according to the Department of Education's listing.
In the East Village and Lower East Side, a handful of the pre-K programs see very high demand for their limited seats.
The popular bilingual-based Shuang Wen School on the Lower East Side attracts parents who want their children to learn in both English and Mandarin Chinese starting from an early age. Last year, the school received 228 applications for 36 pre-K seats. For the 2011-2012 school year, Shuang Wen is opening an additional pre-K section and will offer a total of 54 seats.
The dual-language approach has also been adopted by P.S. 20, another competitive school on the Lower East Side that recently decided to add bilingual studies in English and Mandarin to its curriculum. P.S. 20 received 114 applications for 54 seats last year.
In the East Village, the pre-K programs at the Earth School, the Neighborhood School and Children's Workshop School are much sought after for their non-traditional approaches to education. Artists and other creative professionals living in the neighborhood like that their children learn as much about art and ecology as they do reading and arithmetic at the schools, some of which feature mixed-age classes. All three of those schools admitted less than 20 percent of their applicants last year.
District 1, which covers the East Village, Lower East Side and parts of Chinatown, has the added incentive of featuring full-day pre-kindergarten at all of its schools.
The Murray Hill and Gramercy neighborhoods have only one public school pre-K program, located at P.S. 40 on East 19th Street. Last year, P.S. 40 received 197 applications for 36 spots, and the school will offer the same number of seats this year, all half-day.
Parents on InsideSchools.org describe the school as warm and diverse, with rugs and rocking chairs in many of the classrooms and a rooftop playground. In 2008, P.S. 40 won a prize for the best recycling of any elementary school in Manhattan. The school received $3,000 to continue its environmental education programs.
In the past, P.S. 116 on East 33rd Street had a popular pre-K program, but the school had to eliminate it in 2008 because of overcrowding. The school will still not have enough space to offer pre-K this year.
Chelsea and Hell's Kitchen have four elementary schools that offer pre-K programs, but overcrowding is cutting into the number of available seats.
At P.S. 51 in Hell's Kitchen, there was enough room for two classes of pre-K until last year, when crowding in the other grades forced the school to eliminate one of its pre-K sections, said Katherine Consuelo, a PTA member at the school.
P.S. 51, which is on on West 45th Street, received 127 applications last year for the remaining 18 seats, according to the DOE. This year, the school will once again offer just 18 pre-K slots.
"The Hell's Kitchen neighborhood is in dire need of more pre-K seats," Consuelo said.
One thing parents may want to watch out for is the construction of a new school in P.S. 51's back yard, a major project that will be well underway by the fall of 2011 and has some parents worried about noise, safety and air quality in the area.
Another alternative in Hell's Kitchen is the up-and-coming P.S. 111 on West 53rd Street, said Decker, the educational adviser.
Decker said the school used to have a bad reputation, but that's changed over the years.
"People are starting to make a commitment to their neighborhood school. It's starting to turn around," Decker said.
Last year, P.S. 111 received 111 applications for its 36 pre-K seats, according to the DOE.
In Chelsea, pre-K admission to P.S. 11 and P.S. 33 is competitive. P.S. 11 on West 21st Street received 216 applications for 18 seats, while P.S. 33 on Ninth Avenue received 185 applications for 36 seats. Both schools offer full-day pre-K programs.
Parents on the Upper West Side are blessed with highly regarded — but highly competitive — pre-K programs. P.S. 9 on West 84th Street and Columbus Avenue received 538 applications last year for its 36 seats, more than any other pre-K program in the city.
"What's really amazing about the Upper West Side is that there are some [upper grade] schools that people don't want to keep their kids in, but the pre-K programs are amazing," said Robin Aronow, founder of School Search NYC.
One advantage of the programs is that while they are part of a larger school, all Upper West Side pre-Ks have their own entrance and space within the schools, child-sized sinks and toilets in the classroom and access to their own early childhood playgrounds, Aronow said.
"The teachers tend to be experienced, warm, nurturing adults who introduce interesting lessons interspersed with art and music programs in the classrooms," Aronow said. "At one school I observed the same butterfly study that I saw in many private nursery schools. For the 'money,' public pre-Ks are a great deal."
In addition to P.S. 9, parents also flock to P.S. 87's pre-K program, which garnered a whopping 450 applications for just 18 seats last year.
P.S. 87 is a favorite because it has involved and active parents who are committed to neighborhood schools. Even some parents whose children have tested as gifted and talented keep their kids in neighborhood schools like P.S. 87 instead of sending them to specialized gifted and talented programs, said Decker, of Smart City Kids.
"That's made a big difference at P.S. 87," Decker said. "The strongest schools in Manhattan are schools that include a population that has students who are working well ahead of the curve."
P.S. 87 is also known as a school that takes a "hands-on approach" to the DOE's mandated curriculum, and can handle a wide variety of learners, Decker said.
While the popular P.S. 87, P.S. 9 and also P.S. 84 are likely to fill up with siblings and some zoned students, parents shouldn't fret, Aronow said. They might be pleasantly surprised to find that families have praised the pre-Ks at P.S. 145, P.S. 191 and P.S. 180 in District 3, and P.S. 111 in District 2 just below the Upper West Side.
On the Upper East Side, the supply of pre-K seats has not kept up with the growing demand.
"Over the last five years, the number of children and families has grown, but the number of seats has actually decreased," Councilwoman Jessica Lappin said. "[Pre-K classes] have been crowded out of the schools."
For example, P.S. 158 offered 72 pre-K seats in the fall of 2008 but had to cut the program to just one 18-student class the following year because of a large incoming kindergarten class, Lappin said.
Last year, P.S. 158 received 341 applications for 36 pre-K seats, more than any other school in the neighborhood, according to DOE figures. The school plans to offer 36 seats again this year for the popular program, which includes a music enrichment class taught by an off-Broadway songwriter. InsideSchools.org praised P.S. 158 for its flexible approach, which doesn't force kids to fit a mold and accommodates different needs and learning styles.
Many Harlem elementary schools offer pre-K classes, and they have the advantage of all being full-day programs, which is easier for working parents.
Central Park East II, on East 103rd Street, was the most competitive program in the area last year, with 157 applications for just 18 spots.
Many Harlem parents also apply to the Harlem Children's Zone, which runs one of the most well-regarded pre-K programs in the area, though it is not part of the city's application process.
Harlem Children's Zone operates four Harlem Gems sites with 200 children. Last year, all but one of the children moving to kindergarten were deemed school-ready, said Marty Lipp, a spokesman for the school.
"We believe it is incredibly important that all kids should have a great, solid pre-K availability," Lipp said.
District 6, which covers Washington Heights and Inwood, has the lowest number of full-time public pre-K seats in the borough, and last year many programs accepted less than half of the children who applied.
Parents said the limited number of seats at the much-loved P.S. 187 in Hudson Heights is far too small for the growing need in Upper Manhattan. Last year, 170 children applied for the school's 36 pre-K seats, according to the DOE.
P.S. 98 on West 212th Street was also popular last year, with 112 applications for 54 pre-K seats. Parents said the bilingual school is in demand because it offers hard-to-find full-day seats and because it has a strong gifted and talented program in its later grades.
Another option is P.S. 128 on West 169th Street, which last year received 105 applications for 36 seats. Parents whose children have attended P.S. 128's pre-K program said the staff works hard to tailor the programming to meet each individual child's needs.
Parents who do not win a local public school seat often send their children to neighboring schools in Riverdale or Marble Hill, or to Upper Manhattan parochial schools.