UPPER WEST SIDE — Pre-K application season brings a wave of anxiety to the Upper West Side.
Parents scope out their options, rank their choices and then have to hope for the best, as many schools receive far more applications than they have seats.
"It was kind of like a leap of faith," said Upper West Side parent Annmarie Weiss.
Peishi Wang, mother of two young children, took matters into her own hands. She was determined to get her son Max a full-day pre-K spot at P.S. 84, because the tuition "was outrageous" at Max's private preschool.
The odds were not in her favor. The school accepts 36 children for its two classes, and in 2012, 411 kids applied — less than a 9 percent acceptance rate.
Wang applied and didn't get in.
"We were like, 'Oh my God, this is ridiculous,'" she said.
The family applied again in the second round, but still had no success.
"I thought, 'This is bad,'" Wang said.
It was time for drastic measures. Wang asked for help from a local elected official, who called up P.S. 84's principal and was able to find her son a spot.
Wang said she learned that families enrolled in pre-K sometimes decide to send their kids to private school at the very last minute, opening up a few slots — but you have to be willing to leave it down to the wire.
"We got in at the very end of the summer," Wang said. "We were checking our email every day. It was worth every bit of [effort]."
Annmarie Weiss, who has a child at P.S. 145, The Bloomingdale School, which was not her first choice, encouraged parents to stay open-minded, saying they may be surprised by the quality of the program where their child ends up, as she was with P.S. 145.
Here are some of the Upper West Side's noteworthy public pre-K programs:
P.S. 87, The William T. Sherman School, 160 W. 78th St.
This pre-K program has a 4 percent acceptance rate, but those who sneak in off the waitlist or are helped to the front of the line by having another child who already attends the school rave about the atmosphere and curriculum.
Noreen Sankbeil said that even with a child already at P.S. 87, "we were incredibly lucky to get a spot."
Parents at P.S. 87 said they love how integrated the pre-K program is with the rest of the school.
"The pre-K is able to use a full library — it’s not just a bookshelf. They have access to a librarian," said Sankbeil, who added that the children went on field trips to places such as the Jewish Museum, the Children's Museum and Hunter College with the school's first and second-graders.
The school's community is strong, with very involved parents, Sankbeil said.
"The kids you see in school are the kids you see walking down the street," she added. "[Parents] help each other out a lot."
P.S. 165, The Robert E. Simon School, 234 W. 109th St.
Parents describe the curriculum at P.S. 165's pre-K as "rigorous yet supportive." According to one parent, it's a play-based curriculum, which can mean more interaction between children and opportunities for imagination and exploration. And like other city pre-Ks, the kids also learn about letters and numbers.
"They did a number of field trips to interesting places," parent Eric Walkin said, and the school also puts an emphasis on music and art.
Like other popular pre-K programs on the Upper West Side, P.S. 165 is difficult to get into. There is just one class of 18 children, for which 243 families applied in 2012.
P.S. 84, The Lillian Weber School, 32 W. 92nd St.
Excellent communication is one of the keys to P.S. 84's popularity, according to parents. The administrator for the pre-K program "is totally on top of everything," said one parent. Each teacher also keeps in constant contact with parents, they said.
Peishi Wang said her daughter's teacher, Pauline Deng, is incredibly dedicated and sometimes stays at the school into the evening, developing new projects and lessons.
"She has been nothing but amazing," Wang said. "She is so organized. She communicates with parents multiple times in a week, sometimes multiple times in a day."
Wang called the school "up-and-coming," with an involved PTA, "dedicated parents and open minded administrators" who are "working together to make improvements."
P.S. 145, The Bloomingdale School, 150 W. 105th St.
Annmarie Weiss admits that P.S. 145 wasn't her first choice for pre-K, simply because it means her children are in different schools and she has two after-school pick-ups every day. But she said she's been happy with the experienced teachers at the program.
At P.S. 145, children in the pre-K class have their own playground and stay fairly separate from the rest of the school.They participate in computer, music and gym classes and activities like reading that prepare them for kindergarten.
"It’s very diverse, much more diverse than her [private] preschool," Weiss said. "There’s a representative from every ethnicity in her class."
P.S. 185, The Magnet School for Early Childhood Discovery and Design, 20 W. 112th St.
P.S. 185 is a bit of an underdog in terms of parent popularity in the Upper West Side and Harlem's District 3, but word is spreading about its dynamic principal, Jane Murphy, who has made early childhood education the center of her career. The school also boasts an innovative Lego lab.
"We have high expectations for what we expect the kids to do," Murphy said. "We take what the city tells us to study and then we take it to the next level."
The small school, which serves only pre-K through second grade, received a magnet grant from the federal government to upgrade its curriculum, and invested in a Lego lab, where kids spend 90 minutes each week.
In the lab, students explore gravity and balance and other engineering principles, learn spatial concepts and practice putting their tinkering and exploring into words. Murphy said students have made incredible strides through the lab.
Like P.S. 145, the school is diverse and has an involved parent body.