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Pre-K Guide: Everything You Need to Know to Get Your Child a Seat

Pre-K Applicants
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Billy Figueroa

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

DNAinfo Staff

MANHATTAN — Get ready, parents: Pre-K application season has arrived.

Starting on Monday, parents of children who will turn 4 this year can begin applying for a coveted seat in one of the city’s free public pre-K programs.

Thousands of families apply to pre-Kindergarten each year, seeking an experience for their child that is more educational than daycare but not as expensive as private school. But demand is so high that there aren’t enough seats to go around, which means that the most sought-after programs remain harder to get into than an Ivy League college.

Young students hard at work at P.S. 276 in Battery Park City.
Young students hard at work at P.S. 276 in Battery Park City.
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DNAinfo/Julie Shapiro

Last year, the most competitive program in Manhattan was at P.S. 163 on the Upper West Side, which accepted just 3 percent of the 324 children who applied, according to the Department of Education. At P.S. 3 in Greenwich Village, an astounding 575 children applied for a pre-K seat, more than at any other school in Manhattan.

“It’s really overwhelming and terrifying,” said Ed Yau, a Lower East Side resident who is looking at pre-K programs for his 3-year-old son. “My biggest nightmare is my son missing out on pre-K altogether.”

Some neighborhoods offer better odds. Many programs in Harlem accept more than 50 percent of the children who apply, and last year The Island School on the Lower East Side had more seats than applications.

The Department of Education runs the pre-K application process centrally, so parents fill out a single form to apply to up to 12 pre-K programs. Applications are due April 5.

The city then uses a lottery to decide which 4-year-olds make the cut. A complex system of priorities gives preference to children with siblings in the school and children who live in the school’s zone.

The city will send out acceptance letters during the week of June 11, and then parents will have until June 22 to decide if they want to accept the offer and pre-register their child.

Free pre-K is also available at dozens of community-based organizations across the city, which each have their own application and admissions timeline.

Pre-K is considered important for young children, whose brains are developing rapidly, because it teaches them more than just letters and numbers — the 4-year-olds also learn how to sit still and get along with their classmates, said Laura Sosinsky, assistant professor in the Applied Developmental Psychology Program at Fordham University.

"We know from decades of research that a good quality pre-K education can help a child get ready for school, physically, mentally and socially,” Sosinsky said.

Sosinsky advises parents to visit the pre-K programs they are interested in to determine which one is the best match. Parents can watch how the teachers interact with the students and should also make sure that the children get to do a variety of activities; indoor and outdoor, active and quiet.

“There's no one-size-fits-all answer,” Sosinsky said, noting that working parents may need full-day programs, but many pre-K classes only last for half a day in the morning or afternoon. “Every family is going to have a whole different set of needs and goals."

Yau, the Lower East Side parent, was so overwhelmed by the task of picking a pre-K program for his son that he decided several months ago to create a smartphone app to help both himself and other parents.

The result is Sage, which allows parents to type in their address and find their zoned school, along with other schools nearby. The app shows each school’s progress report letter grade, along with details on how the students fared on recent state tests.

“I needed some way to narrow it down,” Yau said of the many pre-K options in his neighborhood. “You can't visit them all.”

After researching his options and going on tours, Yau has drafted a list of his top choices, including East Village Community School and Children’s Workshop School. But he won’t be able to relax until he has an acceptance letter in hand.

“I'm still overwhelmed,” Yau said. “My only comfort is that I know a little more about the process.” 

Many elementary schools hold tours for prospective pre-K parents during March. The Department of Education will hold an information session for Manhattan families on March 15 at 6 p.m. at The High School of Fashion Industries, 225 W. 24th St.

The most popular pre-K program in Lower Manhattan last year was at P.S. 89 in northern Battery Park City, which received 471 applications for 32 seats.

One of the biggest draws at P.S. 89 is Connie Ryan, the highly regarded veteran pre-K teacher, who is known for igniting children's desire to learn, said Sarah Cassell, president of P.S. 89's PTA.

"She's absolutely wonderful," Cassell said of Ryan. "She's relentlessly kind and she fosters curiosity. She's unflappable."

Karen Addison Picciani, a Battery Park City resident whose daughter is in Ryan’s pre-K class this year, said she is especially impressed by the way Ryan’s firm but gentle guidance helps young children acclimate to school.

This fall, P.S. 89 will offer one morning and one afternoon pre-K class, each with 16 seats.

Families looking for better odds than the 7 percent acceptance rate at P.S. 89 last year may want to try one of Downtown's newer elementary schools.

P.S. 276, the city's first green elementary school, accepted 16 percent of the children who applied to pre-K last fall, while the Spruce Street School, in the base of Frank Gehry's new apartment tower, accepted 19 percent.

This year, both schools will once again each offer 72 half-day seats, more than any other program in the area.

The only Downtown school that offers full-day public pre-K is P.S. 150 in TriBeCa. The tiny elementary school, which has just one class per grade, received 393 applications last year for its 18 pre-K seats.

Greewnich Village has just one public pre-K program, and it gets a flood of applications every year.

P.S. 3, at 490 Hudson St., received 575 pre-K applications last year, more than any other school in Manhattan. P.S. 3 also offers more seats than most other pre-K programs: 90 spots in all, of which 18 are full day and 72 are half day.

While working parents usually prefer full-day programs, Lisa Siegman, principal of P.S. 3, said the families in the school’s half-day pre-K often work together to create their own version of full-day care by pooling babysitting and taking turns picking kids up and dropping them off.

“Do a lot of networking and really examine your options,” Siegman said, advising parents not to pick a pre-K program too long a commute from their home. “Be realistic about what’s going to work for you and your family.”

P.S. 3’s arts-focused curriculum filters down even to the pre-K, where the students recently studied the bright, geometric paintings of Wassily Kandinsky and created their own artwork featuring concentric squares and circles.

“They’re working with shapes and colors, but they’re doing it in the context of a well-known artist,” Siegman said.

Families that do not get into P.S. 3’s pre-K in the first round of admissions should not despair — the school often sees slots open up over the summer, Siegman said. Parents who call after the school year ends may be offered a seat if one is available.

District 1, which covers the Lower East Side, East Village and part of Chinatown, is unique in that it has no zoned schools, so families in any part of the district have an equal shot at getting into any of the pre-K programs, regardless of where they live. 

The broad array of options is a good thing for families, but it can also be overwhelming, so Lisa Donlan, president of the District 1 Community Education Council, suggests that parents take their time in researching the schools.

"I would advise parents to go on tours for every school they're interested in," Donlan said. "Some schools have high demand — it's important to have a couple choices."

Last year, the most popular pre-K program in District 1 was at Shuang Wen, a highly regarded dual-language English-Mandarin school that received 311 applications for 36 pre-K seats.

Parents who want a dual-language program with better admissions odds may want to try P.S. 20 on the Lower East Side, which accepted nearly 40 percent of the children who applied last year and will offer 54 pre-K seats this year.

The District 1 pre-K program with the lowest admissions rate last year was the Earth School in the East Village, which accepted just 8 percent of the children who applied. The progressive elementary school specializes in hands-on learning with an environmental focus.

To serve the many working families that live in District 1, all of the area's pre-K programs are full day.

Also, unlike the rest of the city, District 1 considers pre-K, rather than kindergarten, the main entry point for elementary school. That means that children in a school's pre-K program are guaranteed a kindergarten seat the following year and can stay at the same school all the way through fifth grade.

Hell’s Kitchen lost one of its two pre-K programs last year when P.S. 51 moved to the Upper East Side because of construction on its West 45th Street building.

P.S. 51’s temporary home at Our Lady of Good Counsel on East 91st Street did not have enough room for pre-K classes, so P.S. 51 had to cancel them at the last minute, after families had already been accepted, said Katherine Johnson, parent of a fifth-grader at P.S. 51.

The school will remain on the Upper East Side for one more year, before returning to Hell’s Kitchen in 2013, when Johnson and other parents hope the popular pre-K program will be restored.

In the meantime, some parents in the neighborhood choose to send their children to nearby parochial schools for pre-K, such as the Sacred Heart of Jesus School on West 52nd Street or the Holy Cross School on West 42nd Street, Johnson said.

Those who prefer public school can apply to the pre-K program at P.S. 111 on West 53rd Street, where the young students are now creating alphabet books and learning to write their name. P.S. 111 received 147 applications last year for 36 full-day pre-K seats.

In Chelsea, P.S. 11 and P.S. 33 both have full-day pre-K programs, but last year families that chose P.S. 33 had more than double the odds of getting in, because P.S. 33 offers twice as many seats but receives fewer applications than P.S. 11.

Pre-K students at P.S. 33, on Ninth Avenue, get a very early jump on college by studying what it means to live in a dorm, according to InsideSchools.org.

At P.S. 11, on West 21st Street, the pre-K curriculum is supplemented by field trips including the Central Park Zoo and the Union Square Greenmarket.

Ed Yau, with his wife and 3-year-old son, is a Lower East Side resident who is so concerned about pre-K admissions that he created a smartphone app to simplify the process.
Ed Yau, with his wife and 3-year-old son, is a Lower East Side resident who is so concerned about pre-K admissions that he created a smartphone app to simplify the process.
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Ed Yau

P.S. 116 in Kips Bay lost its pre-K program about five years ago because of overcrowding, leaving families with few options nearby.

“Some parents are lucky enough to be able to send their children to private preschool,” said Beth Parise, mother of a second-grader at P.S.116. “But that’s not most of the neighborhood.”

While a new school, P.S. 281, is scheduled to open in 2013 as part of the Sheldon Solow redevelopment along the East River, it could be years before P.S. 116 gets its pre-K and gifted and talented programs back, if ever, Parise said.

“We end up having to do away with all the extras just to accommodate the other grades,” she said.

The good news for the neighborhood is that P.S. 59, the Beekman Hill International School, is moving this fall from East 63rd Street into its new home at 250 E. 57th St. and will have room for 36 half-day pre-K students, 18 in the morning and 18 in the afternoon.

P.S.59, which has a global focus and draws students who speak more than 40 different languages, will be able to grow from 500 students to 730 students in its more spacious new digs, the Department of Education said.

Down in Gramercy, the pre-K program at P.S. 40 on East 20th Street is perennially popular, with 282 applications last year for 36 seats. The school, which emphasizes interdisciplinary learning, will offer 18 morning and 18 afternoon pre-K seats this year.

Upper East Side parents have few options for public pre-K programs, and competition is fierce for seats. Many end up shelling out big bucks to send their children to private pre-K. “There’s a big private nursery school scene on the Upper East Side — who doesn’t have $25,000 to throw around?” joked one public school mom who didn’t want to be named.

However, some private schools do offer finanical aid or scholarships, said Gina Malin, director of school advisory services at the Parents League of New York, a consulting service that advises parents on admission to private schools and runs workshops about pre-K programs.

For those that stick with public schools, there are only three public schools in the neighborhood have pre-K slots: P.S. 158 on York Avenue and E. 78th Street; P.S. 198 on Third Avenue and East 96th Street; and the Ella Baker School on East 67th Street and First Avenue.

Well-regarded P.S. 158, which made Gotham School’s 2010 list of top Manhattan elementary schools, was the most competitive pre-K in District 2 last year, accepting only 9 percent of its 398 applicants.

The 36 pre-K students lucky enough to get in benefit from a music enrichment program, and a commenter on Inside Schools recently praised the pre-K program for its “warm and loving” teacher who “manages the classroom well.”

P.S. 198 is the second most popular pre-K program in District 2, with 238 students applying for 28 seats last year. The school recently added a gifted and talented program that’s improved the atmosphere schoolwide, according to Principal Sharon Jeffrey-Roebuck. The Ella Baker School, which drew 336 applications for 54 slots last year, is known for “caring and engaged” teachers.

On paper, the most competitive pre-K program in the entire city is the Upper West Side’s P.S. 163, where 324 kids applied for 10 seats last year. The numbers are somewhat misleading. The school actually has 18 pre-K slots — 10 for general education students and eight for kids with special needs.

Parents from both groups praised P.S. 163 as a hidden gem that’s just as good as pricey private schools.

“Anybody that gets in is extremely fortunate and lucky,” said mom Julia Heath, whose special needs son recently finished two years at the pre-K program.

The class is team taught by Nancy Silverman and Peter Cruz, veteran educators — both parents themselves — who are sweet, compassionate and loving, according to Heath. “They’re everything you would want your pre-K child to have,” Heath said. “I can’t say enough good things about the two teachers.”

The two teachers work well together to create an academically rigorous environment where children learn to socialize and get acclimated to school routines, Heath said. The class goes on plenty of field trips, starting close to home with a walk to the farmer’s market outside P.S. 163, then visiting a farm later in the year to see where all those fruits and vegetables come from. Other destinations have included zoos and botanical gardens.

P.S. 163 parent Evie Porwick said teachers zeroed in on her son’s unique abilities and skill level. Recently he’s been working on kindergarten-level homework from the gifted and talented program. “I was blown away,” Porwick said.

But P.S. 163 is one of several highly sought-after pre-K programs on the Upper West Side. Other popular choices include P.S. 87, known for its active and involved parents; P.S. 9, and P.S. 84.

Experts say parents shouldn’t overlook other Upper West Side pre-K options like P.S. 145 and P.S. 191. Both recently received federal money to become magnet schools with specialized curriculum. P.S. 145 is now the Magnet School for Technology and Multimedia Communication, and P.S. 191 is now the Museum Magnet School.

The most popular pre-K choices in Harlem are Central Park East I and Central Park East II, which each accepted 10 percent of those who applied. The racially and economically diverse sister schools are known for letting children follow their own interests and express themselves with creative projects.

The neighborhood is also home to one  of the city’s newest pre-K programs, at P.S. 242, formerly called the Gwendolyn Powell Brown Computer School. The school is one of eight District 3 schools that recently received federal money to create a specialized magnet curriculum.

In August 2011, the school got more good news when long-awaited pre-K seats were added. Since then, parents have been “practically begging” to get their kids into the program, said Principal Denise Desjardin.

Now called the Young Diplomats Magnet Academy, the school’s new theme is built around the International Baccalaureate program, which teaches students, even at the pre-K level, to be “globally-minded,” said Desjardin.

“The pre-K follows everything about the I.B. philosophy, plus the state standards," said Desjardin. “The idea is that the more children are aware of global issues, the more they respect and value the world."

Another perk at the Young Diplomats Academy is a free after-school program run by Harlem Children’s Zone that also aligns with the International Baccalaureate standards. “Everybody is using the same language and everyone is on the same page,” said Desjardin. “We’re all working together."

Unlike public pre-Ks to the south, programs at schools in Washington Heights and Inwood don’t attract overwhelming numbers of applicants — in fact, some even accept the majority of kids who apply.

“I don’t know any public school pre-K program that people are doing back flips about,” said Washington Heights parent advocate Jessica Shapley, who runs the counseling service Mom Support.

Exceptions to that rule are Washington Heights' P.S. 187, where 224 kids applied for 36 seats, and Inwood’s P.S. 210, a dual language school where 148 students applied for 12 slots last year.

Parents like P.S. 187 because it’s a “nice neighborhood program” that helps introduce kids to the school’s well-regarded elementary grades, said Shapley. Principal Diane Chory recently told DNAinfo she makes an effort to connect with all the children in the building by getting out of her office on a regular basis.

Many Upper Manhattan parents turn to private schools or free pre-K programs at community-based organizations, which run on a different application timeline. Popular choices include the free universal preschool program at the St. Elizabeth School, the Medical Center Nursery School, which is affiliated with Columbia University Medical Center, and Inwood’s Marble Hill school. Birch Family Services’ Manhattan Early Childhood Center is an option for children with special needs.

Shapley’s kids attended the nursery school at the Nagle Avenue Y, where the pre-K program has grown stronger and better over the years, she said. “It was neighborhood school that reflected the kids that lived in the neighborhood," Shapley said. "There were kids from Inwood and kids from WaHi. It was a community-based school that was what appealed to me."