HARLEM — Naomi Smith, principal at Central Park East II, has some simple advice for parents looking for a pre-K program for their children: Look for the artwork.
"Look for evidence of the children's work," Smith said. "Some schools over-stress reading and writing in pre-K and that means kids can be missing out on lots of different types of learning opportunities."
Central Park East II, along with its ideological progressive sister school Central Park East I, are two of the most sought-after pre-K's in Harlem.
Central Park East I had 189 applicants for just 18 seats last year, while Central Park East II had 186 applicants for 18 seats.
"Pre-K kids should have hands-on experiences such as touching and using their senses to help them along," said Central Park East II's pre-K teacher lisa schaffner, (who asked DNAinfo.com New York to spell her name with only lowercase letters.)
On one recent afternoon, the children figured out how to carry a 50-pound bag of sand up to the fourth floor for their sand table.
They picked up a student who weighed about 50 pounds to see how heavy the weight was and then held a brainstorming session until one student suggested dividing the bag into smaller amounts so everyone could carry some of the sand upstairs.
"We like to make them think about how to solve problems in everyday situations," schaffner said.
But like many of the in-demand pre-K's, space is an issue. Siblings get priority at the school, which makes it that much more difficult for parents looking to get their kids into one of the 18 seats.
"Space is a huge issue," said Noah Gotbaum of the District 3 Community Education. "There is enormous demand, and half-day pre-K doesn't work for working parents."
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who is running for mayor, said only 20,000 of the city's eligible 48,000 kids receive full-day pre-K.
But Gotbaum said he's encouraged, pointing to President Barack Obama's proposal to ramp up pre-K programs, an initiative that has also come up in the mayoral campaign.
"It's doubly important because the pre-K's are feeders for the public schools," Gotbaum said.
Here are some of Harlem's noteworthy public pre-K programs:
P.S. 185, The Early Childhood Discovery and Design Magnet School, 20 W. 112th St.
Some parents call this sought-after magnet school the "Lego School" because of the way it uses hands-on activities and materials to introduce kids to math, reading and writing in unique ways. The federal magnet program is designed to increase diversity at the school. Principal Jane Murphy receives high marks for nurturing a good staff. The parent coordinator is also well-regarded. Last year there were 106 applications for 54 slots.
P.S. 180 Hugo Newman College Preparatory School, 370 W. 120th St.
Ask what's great about P.S. 180 and parents and teachers will say: "Dr. Mac," better known as the school's longtime principal, Peter McFarlane.
"Dr. McFarlane is an amazing educator, and they tend to nurture and build great teachers," said one admirer.
Robin Aronow, founder of School Search NYC, which helps guide parents through the public and private school search process, agreed.
"He's very dynamic," Aronow said of McFarlane. "He knows how to motivate his staff and use available resources to bring the community into the school."
The school has a track out back and is also seeking funding for a garden for yoga, environmental lessons and relaxation. The school is also known for its level of parental involvement. Last year there were 213 applicants for 72 spots.
James Weldon Johnson, 176 E. 115th St.
The school is known for bringing in resources and working with community groups. Last year, James Weldon Johnson had 124 applicants for 36 seats.
P.S. 83, Luis Munoz Rivera, 219 E. 109 St.
The in-demand school had 137 applications for only 18 pre-K spots last year. Insideschools.org said the once academically rigid school has softened its stance a bit and that a visit with a pre-K class showed well-adjusted students who were well-versed in their colors and numbers.
P.S. 36, Margaret Douglas, 123 Morningside Drive
Robin Aronow, founder of School Search NYC, which helps parents navigate public and private schools, said she was impressed with the school's efforts to involve fathers. The school has a program called "Pops on Patrol," where fathers patrol the school helping students. Last year 147 kids applied for 72 pre-K slots.
Teachers College Community School, 168 Morningside Ave.
The school, a collaborative effort between Teachers College and the Department of Education, opened in 2011 and added a pre-K program for the 2012-13 school year. Next year the school will add full-day pre-K for 18 students. Parents love the school, which uses Teachers College's literacy program. There are computers in every classroom. The pre-K kids eat lunch family style in their classroom. For a learning unit on subways, a play area has been converted to a subway station.