A Guide To The Crazy World Of New York Kindergarten

By Olly Jones -a dad who went down a mind f of a rabbit hole when his son was going into pre-k

It seems like only yesterday I was debating whether I really needed that late night kebab (the answer should have always been no.) My late night internal struggles look a little different these days. Quick background- I moved to New York from London as a singleton (dating an American) got married, had two kids without leaving the city - and found myself unexpectedly in the arena of “NY parent sending his kid to school in the city.” A tagline that is the stuff of urban legend. And for good reason.

As I’ve graduated from the “Dad with a baby carrier” to dropping my oldest off at school, my relationship with the neighborhood has shifted and different things have become a priority. My wife is a massive part of our passion for the city and normally I’d write about us as a family unit, but school searching was something I took on as a bit of a crusade/hobby. And to be fair, I never met an excel spreadsheet I didn’t love. And the search lent itself beautifully to excel. Win win.


If you give me a budget of $50k a year (the going rate for private schools in New York give or take) I’m confident I can find better ways to spend it to incrementally improve my kid’s life than with a private school. I’m sure this is contentious and not everyone agrees with my philosophy, but this backed me into the challenge of finding the best possible public school for my kid

One of my favorite parts of my neighborhood is its diversity and I was determined to preserve this in my choice of school for two main reasons: (i) you can’t go on about loving your diverse neighborhood if you then f it off and go to a private school (ii) if you give me a budget of $50k a year (the going rate for schools in New York give or take) I’m confident I can find better ways to spend it to incrementally improve my kid’s life than with a private school. I’m sure these are contentious and not everyone agrees with my philosophy, but this backed me into the challenge of finding the best possible public school for my kid. I want to put it out there that people in our community make a living on helping parents navigate the New York school systems. I remember a time in my parenting life where I scoffed at the parents who would “waste money” on something like that and then I had to eat my words as I found myself RSVPing to a talk hosted by one of those people.

The first thing I learned is that there was three different application processes available to us: (I) regular public school (zoned and un-zoned) (ii) a ‘gifted and talented test (iii) charter school applications. Without knowing much about each of them, I wanted to find out how I could apply to all, as this would give me the broadest choice of options from which to make a final selection from.

Zoned and unzoned

Rule 1: know your zoned school. The process and parents in playgrounds tell you that there are a ton of options, but if you don’t look at G&T or Charter schools, the vast majority of you will go to your zoned school. Except for certain neighborhoods where the zoned schools are overcrowded, you could get waitlisted and the Department of Education will place you at another school, sometimes not convenient to your house.

Unzoned have some interesting options (our first choice - which we didn’t get - was a dual language program) and are for sure worth looking into, but often have a lot of restrictions around entry, so be realistic about where you might stand in applying. The ranking on your application card does matter so put some thought in your rank.

Gifted and talented

Read and research what you want about this (I spent a lot of time), but let me distill it down. You can train a lot of 4 year olds to learn how to pick ‘what comes next in a pattern’ or ‘what’s missing from the picture’ to pass this test - we did and many other parents do. I looked at it from the stance of “I want to open all the doors for my son” so we put him in a puzzle class each week where they played logic games, but it was really a form of prep. At first I was embarrassed to admit that to people but I got over it quickly when he actually liked going to the puzzle class and my wife and I could go to brunch with now only one kid.

If your child gets through this process and in a top percentile (for the mathematicians out there, in one category our kid got 19 out of 35 and was marked as the 99th percentile) you have a few options. Based on the score, your child either gets into a track where he or she can apply to the full range of G&T programs offered citywide or just a few select schools near your zipcode. The citywide programs are notoriously intense. Another thing I learned is that receiving a qualifying score on the G&T exam does not guarantee your child a seat.

The G&T programs are for sure a little different from the regular stream, but they make it clear from the beginning that your child is not special (they use learn different) and will not be pushed to read/ do math at grades ahead of their age. They’re all oversubscribed so I appreciate them setting their stall out from the get go - they don’t want a parent coming to them after a month saying “I’m not sure my kid is being treated as gifted”.

I’m sure some kids would get more out of this public school stream than the regular one, but don’t think its some long term academic path that will make or break your kid. We got into the G&T track and opted not to send our son there.

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Charter Schools

In general, these are set up in neighborhoods that have zoned/unzoned schools that are failing - but it’s not always the case. These are lottery based as well and you are not guaranteed a spot. As such, we were initially waitlisted at the charter school we applied to and only found out a few weeks before school started that we had received a spot. As such, they often have a controversial approach to education that can be polarizing: strict, intense, nightly homework, heavy on family involvement - including pro-charter school rallies. These schools get less money from the government than a regular public school but can take on private funding, so in almost every case they have more funding per kid than a general public school and more freedom to move away from set curriculum (they’re the only public school open houses where I’ve been offered humus too, BTW).

We ultimately went the charter school route, because it was best for our situation, but don’t underestimate the environment you’re entering. If I need to see a teacher, I’m told to come in at 7:10am; if my kid is late then he doesn’t get to participate in Friday movie afternoon; he comes home every day with different color stickers based on his behavior and I’m surrounded with parents who are highly (I mean highly) motivated to launch their child into a new world of opportunities never afforded to them. For me, I loved all these things about the school we ended up at.

Now that we are in Kindergarten I get to look forward to doing this whole process all over again in a few years as most public schools don’t go all the way up to eight grade. Fun times