NEW YORK — The deadline to apply for public pre-K seats is rapidly approaching — so now is the time for parents to start narrowing down their options.
Families can choose among hundreds of free pre-K programs in public schools across the city. Applications are due April 5 and are available on the Department of Education's website.
Competition is fierce for the in-demand pre-K seats, with the most popular programs admitting less than 5 percent of the 4-year-olds who apply. The numbers can sound overwhelming, but if you do your research and are flexible on location — and if you're willing to consider pre-K programs at local nonprofits — you can improve your chances of winning a spot.
Here are the top 10 things you need to know about applying to pre-K:
1. You can apply to anywhere. All children born in 2009 are eligible to apply to any of the city's public pre-K programs, regardless of where they live. That means you can pick a pre-K program near your home, office or another location.
2. You have the best chance of getting into your zoned school. You can find your zoned school by entering your address on the DOE's website, and then you can find information about that school's pre-K program in DNAinfo.com New York's interactive guide. If you don't have a pre-K program at your zoned school, or if you don't have a zoned school, you have the best chance of getting into a pre-K program in your district.
3. Having an older sibling helps. The easiest way to get into a pre-K program is to have an older sibling at the same school. Younger siblings have top priority for pre-K admissions, and at some schools, like P.S. 41 in Greenwich Village, many of the available spaces go only to younger siblings.
4. You can list up to 12 choices — but you don't have to. The application has room for 12 choices, but experts advise only choosing schools you actually want your child to attend, because you could be matched with any of them. Still, applying to more schools generally increases your chances of getting offered a seat.
5. Check out which schools were hardest — and easiest — to get into last year. DNAinfo's pre-K guide shows the admissions rate of every public pre-K program in the city last year, so you can get a sense of which ones offer the best chances of accepting your child. While some programs receive far more applications than they have seats, plenty of others accept more than half of the kids who apply.
6. There are more full-day seats this year. The city added 4,000 full-day pre-K seats this year, concentrated in high-need neighborhoods. That means kids have more opportunities to get a seat in a full-day program, which runs for six hours and 20 minutes, as opposed to a half-day program, which only lasts for two-and-a-half hours in the morning or afternoon. There are 20,000 full-day pre-K seats and 23,000 half-day pre-K seats for the fall of 2013.
7. Your pre-K choice can help with kindergarten admissions next year. In a major Department of Education policy change, kids who attend pre-K at any school in the city this year will have admissions priority at the same school for kindergarten next year. So, if you want a leg up in competitive kindergarten admissions in 2014, you may want to keep that in mind when picking a pre-K program this year.
8. Check out community-based organizations too. In addition to the city's pre-K programs in public schools, there are also hundreds of community-based organizations that offer free and low-cost preschool [PDF]. Each program has its own admissions timeline, so contact the programs individually for more information.
9. Visit schools and programs to learn more. The best way to decide on a pre-K program is to visit and talk to the teachers and staff. Many schools and community-based organizations welcome parent visits, but call in advance. Experts advise looking for warm, nurturing programs that emphasize learning through play.
10. Don't panic if you don't get in. The DOE will notify families in early June if they've been admitted to a pre-K program. If you don't get in, try contacting your top-choice schools to ask about getting on a waitlist. Many schools continue offering spots to kids on the waitlist as they become available, right up through the start of school in September.
For more information about pre-K programs in the city's neighborhoods, visit DNAinfo's Public Schools Guide.