NEW YORK CITY — Before deciding where to buy an apartment last year, Linnea Paton did her homework on schools.
The 26-year-old does not yet have kids but plans to down the road, and since her husband is Quebecois, Paton scouted French dual language programs. They moved to Clinton Hill since not only was it in their price range, but the nearby school, P.S. 20, has such a program.
“I probably read every blog and website that talked about schools,” she said. “When you're making a big investment that ties you down you think about the long term.”
When house hunting, many buyers pay as much attention to square footage as they do to neighborhood schools, real estate brokers said.
Brokers are limited in what they can divulge about schools because of the federal Fair Housing Act, said Upper West Side broker Mike Mishkin, explaining that he can provide clients with school addresses, but they have to look up information about the school themselves.
But here’s the thing about New York City schools: they’re constantly changing.
Principals come and go. School boundaries are sometimes re-written. Budgets allowing for enrichment are sometimes flush, sometimes not. What’s “hot” — a focus on STEM or the arts or dual language — can shift year-to-year. And the quality of teachers — even within one grade — can vary widely.
“There's no school in the world where every class has a good teacher,” said David Bloomfield, an education professor at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.
Given the labyrinthine nature of NYC public schools, DNAinfo put together a guide to shed light on the factors at play.
1. Understand the admissions process.
Most elementary schools are zoned, meaning families who live within certain boundaries are typically assigned to those schools — even though the Department of Education now allows parents to apply online through Kindergarten Connect and rank up to 20 choices.
Three districts — the Lower East Side’s District 1, the South Bronx's District 7 and Brownsville and East New York's District 23 — are “choice” districts without zoned elementary schools.
Even though families who live in the school’s boundaries are given priority for zoned elementary schools, there’s a hierarchy of priority, led by siblings of zoned students already in the school.
And placement in your zoned school is never guaranteed.
When there are more applicants who live in the zone than there are seats available, kids are put on waitlists and assigned to another school. But there is often a lot of movement off of waitlists as children take other offers, school officials say.
There are other options, like dual language programs that often accept students from outside the zone. And gifted and talented programs accept children from different neighborhoods.
(The admissions process gets complicated again in middle school, for which each district has a different set of rules, and high school, which is a choice process.)
2. Get the full scoop on overcrowding.
High-achieving schools and overcrowding often go hand-in-hand.
While the DOE is building new schools every year, the department isn’t keeping pace with the rapid growth of residential real estate in the city, residents and elected officials said.
“Kindergarten waitlists really confuse people and make it hard to commit to real estate buys,” said consultant Emily Glickman of Abacus Guide Educational Consulting. “Fortunately, at older grades you can usually send your child to your zoned school.”
One way to suss out whether a waitlist might be an issue is to look at what has happened with waitlists at the school in the past, advises Robin Aronow, of School Search NYC, a consultant for Manhattan families, who also offers workshops on applying to public schools.
History doesn’t always dictate the future when it comes to waitlists, she cautions. At P.S. 199 on the Upper West Side, the DOE added a kindergarten class to accommodate a long waitlist last year, but have said they won’t do that again this year.
Schools with packed classes might offer less individual attention for students and can mean lunch times as early as 10 a.m. and limited gym and art time, parents and education advocates point out.
The DOE provides a breakdown of class sizes for each school on its site.
3. Find out whether school zones are in flux.
Overcrowding issues might mean school zone changes are on the horizon.
You might move to a street that’s zoned for a certain school, which then gets re-zoned because of overcrowding and “find that you’re squeezed out” of that school while buildings that are “literally” across the street remain in the zone, Bloomfield said.
The Community Education Councils — the volunteer body that oversees local school issues — have authority over the lines that dictate where a student goes to school based on where they live.
Typically, CECs work with the DOE to change zone lines as part of a multi-year process. Their websites should have the latest information on such issues, as well as maps with school zones.
There’s also a growing movement of parents and school leaders calling for school zoning changes to help improve the diversity of schools. (To help this effort, the city recently passed the School Diversity Accountability Act, requiring the DOE issue an annual report on diversity — or the lack thereof — in schools, including data drilling down to the grade level, the admissions criteria/process for each school or program, and the specific actions the DOE is taking to strengthen diversity.)
The CEC for the Lower East Side and East Village's District 1 has spent this year convening workshops to find ways to improve their schools’ diversity. District 13, which spans from Brooklyn Heights to Prospect Heights and Clinton Hill to Bedford-Stuyvesant, is also hoping to create a plan that let schools admit students based on diversity goals.
On the Upper West Side, one local group is advocating the CEC consider doing away with school zones altogether and redistribute students in a way that creates more diverse schools.
4. Look at test scores — but with skepticism.
While the backlash against high stakes testing continues to grow, with more families opting out of state tests each year, that has not stopped parents from scrutinizing these scores.
Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina ended the “letter grade” system of ranking schools — implemented during the Bloomberg administration and based on a school’s test score performance — replacing it with a more nuanced and qualitative evaluation that would include, for instance, observations from outside reviewers and results of parent satisfaction surveys, along with test scores.
Many experts, like Aronow, emphasized the importance of looking at the qualitative reviews and the level of satisfaction among a school’s students and teachers.
“It's kind of a fool's game to depend on any given metric,” Bloomfield said, “but a helpful exercise to list the dozen or so factors that are important to you and investigate the school from that point of view — with skepticism.”
(There's a free app, School Central NYC, that one parent created that has test scores, demographics, evaluations and other info.)
5. Ask about parent involvement.
Parent Teacher Associations can step in and use their fundraising power to fill gaps, paying for anything from exercise and wellness program to a community garden.
But education advocates and principals believe that parent involvement is as important as fundraising power.
An involved and cohesive parent body can enlist support from local elected officials and write grants to bring enrichment programs and support systems to their school, if they don’t have the money to purchase them outright.
Check the PTA’s website (separate from the DOE’s site for the school), to get a sense of its activity and consider attending a meeting.
6. Talk to current families
Current families can tell you about developments, both positive and negative, that are affecting the school now and perhaps in the future.
“I tell [people] to speak to families whose children attend the school and ask what the strengths are and where there is room for change,” Aronow said.
If you are a newcomer to the Upper West Side, for example, you might not know that parents at P.S. 163 on West 97th Street are fighting a major construction project next to the school.
Parents can speak to favorable changes as well.
Harlem elementary school P.S. 242 achieved coveted International Baccalaureate status this fall, and parents are now raving about the IB’s project-based learning approach.
PTA leaders can put you in touch with current parents, but you can also reach out to parents through online message boards, and meetup groups organized by parents. It’s also helpful to read through comments in addition to school reviews on InsideSchools.