MANHATTAN — It’s a tale of two cities when it comes to competition for free pre-K seats in the city’s public schools.
A year before Bill de Blasio was elected mayor on a platform that included universal pre-K for all city 4-year-olds, dozens of the city's programs were so popular that only children with a sibling already at the school had a chance at scoring a seat, according to the Department of Education’s newly released pre-K directory.
The 30 most sought-after schools last year included the Upper West Side’s P.S. 87, Chelsea's P.S. 11, Sunset Park's P.S. 24 and Forest Hills’ P.S. 101 — where even some kids who already had siblings in the school were initially denied a seat.
In Chelsea, one mom mistakenly believed her son would get a spot in P.S. 11's pre-K last year because her daughter already attended the school. But after hearing that 21 younger siblings who lived in the zone applied for just 18 slots in P.S. 11's single pre-K class, Nancy Kapplow found her son waitlisted.
"I rolled the dice and just my luck, I got the letter that said I didn't get a slot. There wasn't even enough room for all of the siblings," said Kapplow, who had already given up her son's spot in a private pre-K program.
He eventually got into P.S. 11 when seats opened due to shifts in final enrollment.
"The teacher is very good, very polished, plays guitar, speaks multiple languages," she said. "My son goes to computers and science. It's a good program — especially for the cost. For a public school full-day program it's kind of unbelievable."
The Department of Education's newly released pre-K guide for fall 2014 offers 23,000 seats in New York's public schools, 16,000 of which are for full-day programs and 7,000 of which are for half-day. De Blasio hopes to announce thousands of additional full-day seats in April, but has yet to secure funding for teachers and programming.
But no matter how many new seats are added, competition will still be fierce for spots in the most desirable schools and districts, according to the DOE's track record over the past several years.
Last year, there were 157 schools with programs so coveted they immediately filled with children who lived in their zones, according to the DOE's pre-K directory, which shows the odds of getting into a program by outlining the level of “priority” a family had to meet in 2013.
But there were also 157 schools with programs that had empty seats after the DOE’s initial enrollment period.
There are 10 tiers of priorities that schools use when filling their seats. First preference is given to families who live in a school's zone with siblings already attending that school.
The most competitive districts were Bay Ridge’s District 20; District 2, which spans TriBeCa to Chelsea to the Upper East Side; and District 15, covering Carroll Gardens to Park Slope and Sunset Park.
The least popular programs were in Harlem’s District 5, Bedford-Stuyvesant’s District 16 and Brownsville and East New York’s District 23.
“Because the priorities are a huge factor in placement, knowing if a school took anyone with your ‘priority’ last year is very helpful,” said Joyce Szuflita, who runs NYC School Help, assisting parents in finding the right schools for their kids in Brooklyn.
Parents should remember that a school’s priority levels can change from year to year and “there may be the occasional person from a different priority who will get in off the waitlist at a much later date,” Szuflita added.
In schools with both full-day and half-day programs, full-day tends to fill up more quickly than half-day, and morning sessions tend to fill up more quickly than afternoon ones.
This year, to ensure all available seats are filled, the Department of Education is making a major effort to let families know about pre-K, including subway and bus shelter ads, neighborhood canvassing and social media outreach.
“If you’re a first-time parent in New York City, generally you don’t know this is what you have to do,” Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña said this week about pre-K enrollment. "Most parents think if you have a child you can just show up at a school in September — not for pre-K.”
Because the DOE hopes to add more pre-K seats if funding comes through, the enrollment period for public school pre-K programs will remain open through April 23. Decision letters are expected be sent in early June, and pre-registration will last from June 9 to 20.
The city also offers thousands of free pre-K seats through community-based organizations, which run their own admissions process, each requiring a separate application.