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11 Tips for Applying to the City's Free Pre-K Programs

By Amy Zimmer | January 13, 2016 7:24am | Updated on January 17, 2017 10:24am
 A student in Nagle Avenue Y's early childhood program works with manipulatives.
A student in Nagle Avenue Y's early childhood program works with manipulatives.
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YM/YWHA of Washington Heights and Inwood

MANHATTAN — If your child turns 4 this year, it’s time to start sorting out your pre-K options.

The application period for the city’s free program for four year olds runs from Jan. 17 through Feb. 24. Families of children born in 2013 can apply online, ranking up to 12 full-day programs.

There will also be a second round of applications beginning on April 20 featuring new fall 2017 pre-K programs as well.

Offers will be sent in May.

A record 70,430 students were enrolled in free, full-day pre-K for the first day of the 2016-17 school year, according to the city's Department of Education.

While Mayor Bill de Blasio has touted all of the pre-K programs as being “high quality,” there’s a lot of variation between them, so it’s important to figure out which program will work best for your family. This year Pre-K Quality Snapshots have been introduced online and in libraries for nearly all of the 1,800 programs to let families identify ones that could be a good fit for their children.

 Pre-K children attend class at P.S. 303 in Forest Hills.
Pre-K children attend class at P.S. 303 in Forest Hills.
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DNAinfo/Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska

Here’s a guide to help with the process.

1. Check out the Department of Education's pre-K finder.

The DOE has a handy map that will show you the closest pre-K centers to your home or workplace. It also now includes a "Quality Snapshot," which includes concise information about a program's environment based on parent and teacher surveys.

Make sure you zoom in close, advised Joyce Szuflita, a Brooklyn school admissions consultant for NYC School Help.

“Occasionally you can't see that there are two programs in the same building unless you zoom way in,” she said. “The little hand icons can be superimposed.”

2. Schedule a visit.

It’s important to check out spaces, preferably when the kids are there to see if there are happy faces or not, experts advise.

Some tours started in November, but don’t worry if you haven’t gone yet since most programs are still holding tours.

Some programs host evening open houses; some only have morning tours.

Be sure to visit individual programs’ websites to find out whether you have to register or can just show up.

If kids aren’t around, pay attention to what the classroom looks like and what materials are around, suggested Maris Krasnow, professor of early childhood education at New York University.

“Ask the teacher or tour giver, do the children get to go outside? What do they do if they don’t go outside? Is there music? Is there story time?” she added, stressing the importance of kids having opportunities to move around.

3. A telltale sign of high quality pre-K: art on the wall.

Be sure to check out classroom and hallway walls and notice whether art looks “authentically” done by children — which usually means age-appropriately imperfect — instead of cookie-cutter perfection, which usually means an adult may have been involved in its creation.

“Works of art should show children’s individuality. They shouldn’t all look alike,” said Barbara Schwartz, NYU Steinhardt professor of special education. “Families should see the diversity of what children are doing.”

She added, “There should be evidence of thematic topics that build over time,” about things like “where we live and the food we eat.”

4. “Play-based” or “inquiry-based” programs are all the rage.

Education experts have been touting the importance of play and exploration, especially for preschool, and many advise looking for programs that support this type of learning over doing worksheets.

“Unfortunately, too many people think that learning is doing a worksheet. But in essence, when you have two kids sitting across from each other looking at a book and talking, they’re learning,” Krasnow said.  

That’s how children navigate being part of a community and how to “self-regulate” their behavior, she explained.

Spending time outdoors is also critical, many said, and programs are increasingly adding nature walks, where students go outside and bring back things from their adventures they then use in art projects.

5. Think about how you’ll get your 4-year-old to school.

The DOE does not provide transportation for pre-K students, so think about how you plan to transport your preschooler: Walk? Bus? Train? Car?

Will you have other kids in tow who need to go elsewhere? Will you need to then continue your commute to work? Or do you want your preschooler to be close to your work (which might then mean taking a 4-year-old on the subway during rush hour).

“Logistics can be very stressful,” said Brooklyn College early childhood education professor Mark Lauterbach. “Parents sometimes sell short how being really close to home can make a big difference.”

6. Find out whether there are extended hours.

“Full day” means that it’s like a regular school day, which lasts six hours and 20 minutes. Working parents may need longer hours.

Be sure to ask programs if they offer early drop-off or after school programs and whether there are fees — often there are.

Also, some after-school programs may transport kids to other sites, which means pick-up will be elsewhere.

7. Rank your choices in order of preference.

Though families are often tempted to strategize when filling out the application, it won't help, Szuflita 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 advised.

"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."

If you’re given a seat in your third-choice program, for instance, you will be waitlisted at your top two choices.

Programs at public schools give top priority to those who live in the zone and have siblings who are current students.

Early education centers give preference to students who already attend their centers, which means that if you didn’t send your kid there as a 3-year-old, your odds of getting in as a 4-year-old may be slim.

The DOE’s handbook shows you whether last year, for example, a school took in any students outside its zone or an education center accepted any students who weren’t already enrolled there.

8. Pay attention to schools’ P.S. numbers.

Szuflita also likes to remind families that there are public schools in different boroughs with the same “P.S.” numbers.

For example, there's a P.S. 234 in Manhattan, and another P.S. 234 in Queens.

“The city is making the list of schools and codes clearer and clearer, but I will still hear of families thinking that they are putting down the code from their local P.S. in Brooklyn, but actually listing the code for a school with the same number in another borough,” she said.

9. Does a program in a public school or early childhood education center make more sense?

This depends on what’s right for your family.

If you have an older child at a public school, for example, it’s probably easier to send your younger child to that school.

Some parents prefer early childhood centers since these programs only have preschoolers, which might feel less overwhelming to little kids (or their parents).

Some centers might offer additional supports for children whose home language isn’t English or other services for families.

And some city-funded or Head Start centers, which have income restrictions for working parents, offer free or low-cost services from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. all year long.

10. Attending pre-K in a public school doesn’t guarantee you a spot there for kindergarten.

All students have to go through the city’s kindergarten admissions process.

If you’re a pre-K student at a school you’re not zoned for, you get a slight edge over other applicants from out of the zone since you’ll have priority following zoned students and siblings.

11. There is such a thing as free lunch.

Besides not having to pay tuition, all full-day pre-K programs offer students either free breakfast and lunch or free lunch and a “nutritious” snack, according to DOE officials, whether the programs are in public schools or early education centers.

Schools use the standard DOE menu. Early education centers have adopted the guidelines of the New York State Child and Adult Care Food Program to set nutritional standards for meals.