MANHATTAN — The April 23 enrollment deadline for public school pre-K programs is fast approaching — but there is still some confusion about what families can expect this year, as Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration rolls out its expansion of full-day seats.
While Albany is providing $300 million per year for the next five years to fund universal pre-K, allowing the city to add 4,268 full-day seats in dozens of schools this fall, some 4-year-olds will still be left without a spot, experts said.
"We have a lot more seats, and we are incredibly grateful, but not everyone will get a seat," said Joyce Szuflita, whose Brooklyn consulting company NYC School Help has been flooded with calls from parents asking, "'Doesn't universal pre-K mean there are seats for everyone [now]'?"
In the most popular districts, like Manhattan's District 2 or Brooklyn District 15, school overcrowding in areas like the Upper East Side, Battery Park City and Park Slope/Windsor Terrace has meant that schools have been cutting pre-K programs to make room for older kids, which has made the remaining pre-K programs extremely competitive.
Last year there were 30 public schools with pre-K programs that only accepted kids with siblings already in the school, since those children got first priority.
On the flip side, there were 157 schools across the city with programs that still had empty seats after the Department of Education's initial registration period.
After the April 23 application deadline, the city will notify families of pre-K admissions decisions in early June, and pre-registration will take place from June 9 to 20.
Here are some last-minute enrollment tips for families with children who turn 4 in 2014:
1. Don't try to strategize: Just rank programs in order of preference.
Though families are often tempted to strategize when filling out the pre-K application, it won't help, said Szuflita, the school admissions consultant.
"You would be spending your time better playing Candy Crush," she said.
Instead parents should rank schools in the order they like them, even if that means ranking your zoned school — where you have the highest priority — lower down, she said.
"If you rank a popular school high on your list that has no seats, you will not be disadvantaged in terms of the other schools ranked lower," she explained. "Your application is addressed by lottery and your priority."
2. Seats at popular schools occasionally become available after registration.
The Department of Education enrolls the exact number of students needed to fill available seats at a particular school, but some of those children will inevitably choose to go to school elsewhere, experts said.
Since a handful of kids will move away over the summer, or their families may have already put down a deposit on a private school, it helps to stay in touch with schools to find out about openings, Szuflita said.
"Don't harass the school, and don't contact them until registration is over," she said. "The schools will not know until the day after registration is over."
The schools use the same system of priorities to fill extra spaces as they do to make initial pre-K offers, which means that siblings get first preference, followed by students in the zone and then the district. But since schools will be trying to fill seats on a tight deadline before their offices close for the summer, there may be a chance of getting in under the wire.
3. Relax. Most public school programs are "fine options."
"When it comes to assessing new schools, I think parents should know that most pre-K programs in the public schools are fine options," said educational consultant Robin Aronow, founder of School Search NYC.
She added that a school's overall reputation does not necessarily determine the quality of its pre-K.
"Applying to schools with good reputations is obvious," she said. "But I think that parents will also be pleasantly surprised by the high quality of pre-K programs in schools where the K-through-fifth-grade reputation is not that strong."
4. Decide whether you need half day or full day.
Families should figure out which program will fit their needs and should also factor in how far they will have to travel to the school, Aronow advised.
Public school programs either last 2 hours and 30 minutes in the morning or afternoon, or for the entire school day, for 6 hours and 20 minutes.
However, even the full-day programs may be too short for some working families. There are also separate pre-K classes at community-based organizations, which generally run from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Those programs have separate deadlines and application procedures, and some are need-based with maximum family income thresholds, Aronow said.
5. Understand that getting a pre-K seat at a school won't guarantee you'll stay there for kindergarten.
"You're back at ground zero at kindergarten," Szuflita said, noting that you'll have a "tiny priority above someone who doesn't have any connection to that school."
A child attending pre-K at a public school will still have to apply to that school through the regular citywide kindergarten admissions process. Schools that offer pre-K do give priority to students from the program applying to kindergarten, but only after they first admit siblings of current students and then zoned children.
6. If you missed touring a school, go online for reviews.
Szuflita also commended InsideSchools, noting the site's Brooklyn pre-K picks included a "thoughtful" guide to programs that historically have seats available to students who live outside their zones.