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How to Find a Free Pre-K Spot If Your Child Is Waitlisted at Public Schools

By Amy Zimmer | June 12, 2014 7:16am
 Pre-K students at East Harlem's Central Park East II read while preparing to go to dance class.
Pre-K students at East Harlem's Central Park East II read while preparing to go to dance class.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

MANHATTAN — Thousands of families received rejection letters last week from public school pre-K programs — but they shouldn't despair. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has made expanding universal pre-kindergarten the cornerstone of his agenda, recently assured parents that there are still plenty of seats available. That includes several hundred public school pre-K seats that didn't fill during the first round of admissions and 25,000 pre-K seats available at community-based early childhood centers across the city.

"We want parents to apply for any and all of the community-based options that make sense for them," de Blasio told reporters last week, adding that his administration launched a campaign to ensure they are filled.

"There's a huge number of high-quality options available all over the city. Parents can apply for as many as they like."

On Wednesday, the DOE revealed a list of more than 50 elementary schools that still have at least three pre-K seats available. Parents can contact those schools directly to get a spot.

Another 8,000 seats will be announced in the coming weeks, city officials said. Many of those will be in community centers, but some will also be in public schools.

Spots at now-filled public school programs might also open up down the road as families move away or choose other options.

"We want parents to understand this is one single system, with uniform standards for the quality of every program," Department of Education spokeswoman Devora Kaye said. "We are reaching out to families directly to make sure they know their options and can find the right fit for their child."

Here's what families need to know:

1. If you didn't get your top public school pre-K choice, you have been automatically added to the waitlist there.

In previous years, families had to go to individual schools after getting their rejection letters if they wanted to get on that school's pre-K waitlist.

Now, the DOE is automatically waitlisting children for their top-picked program, along with any other listed higher on their application than the school where they were matched. For example, a child who applied to five programs and received a placement in his or her third choice would then be waitlisted at the schools ranked first and second. 

More than 18,000 families didn't get their top pick and more than 15,000 got no seat, so all those families are now on waitlists, according to DOE data.

2. Waitlist priority will be ordered according to standard pre-K admissions priorities.

Priority on waitlists will still be given first to zoned students with siblings currently in the school. Other zoned students then get dibs, followed by other students who live in the district.

3. Check in with your top choice school, since it still manages its own waitlist.

Though the DOE's central staff now creates the waitlists, individual schools still oversee them, so families should reach out directly to schools with follow-up questions, education department officials said.

"Openings definitely happen as some applicants offered spaces do not show up to register," said Robin Aronow, a consultant with School Search NYC. "So parents should keep checking in with any schools higher on their lists."

School experts advise waiting to contact schools about openings until after the June 20 registration deadline.

4. You can still get on a waitlist even if you didn't apply to the school originally.

Starting June 16, families can contact individual schools to get added to their waitlists, even if they missed the original application deadline earlier this year or didn't apply to that specific program. Families won't be penalized for not applying earlier.

5. You can now apply for the 3 percent of public school pre-K seats that didn't fill up.

An estimated 715 seats remain open across the city. The DOE posted a list of schools with three or more seats available on Wednesday, noting that the department hopes to fill them soon.

The vast majority of the schools with available spots are in Brooklyn, but there are also a handful in Manhattan, Queens, The Bronx and Staten Island.

6. Soon, you will also be able to apply for newly added public school pre-K seats.

Once the list of new public pre-K seats is announced, parents can reach out directly to the schools to apply.

7. Don't wait to apply for pre-K seats in community-based organizations.

As an alternative to the highly competitive pre-K programs in public schools, try applying to a pre-K program at a community-based organization.

Families can fill out a single online application for available pre-K seats at community-based organizations, at nyc.gov/prek. You can also visit individual centers to apply.

The DOE is encouraging families to apply to community-based pre-K programs by June 26.

8. To learn more about community-based pre-K programs, talk to other families.

Take a tour of an early childhood center to evaluate its pre-K program, Aronow suggested. It may also be helpful to stop by at drop-off or pick-up time to speak to other parents and get a feel for the center, she said.