What to Look for in a School?
Inside Schools - An Independent Guide to NYC Public Schools
Inside Schools is made up of journalists, public school parents, and public school advocates dedicated to improving schools for every child in the city. We believe that engaged, informed parents can promote racially and economically integrated schools of the highest quality. Furthermore, we believe that excellent public education is crucial to the functioning of a democratic society.
We provide authoritative independent information about New York City's public schools. We want to tell you what's really going on, because test scores don't tell the whole story. We visit hundreds of schools each year and interview thousands of people--principals, teachers, students and parents. We observe what’s happening in the classrooms, cafeterias, hallways and even the bathrooms.
What to Look For in a School
You will certainly want to check out your neighborhood school before you enroll your child. You may also want to tour other schools that your child may be eligible to attend. On your visits, consider the following:
Close to home or far away? Little kids tire easily, and a long commute to school will be difficult, particularly in the winter. If they get sick during the day, who will take them home? If they go to a school far from home, will they have friends in the neighborhood? That said, many parents happily trade a short commute for a superior education. For information about transportation, see the Department of Education Office of Pupil Transportation.
Does the school challenge strong students and give extra help when needed?If every child reads the same book at the same time every day, watch out. If one child is reading a chapter of Charlotte’s Web while another is reading a simple book like Frog and Toad, that’s a sign that the school adapts to children of different abilities. All children have strengths and weaknesses: you don’t want a one-size-fits all curriculum.
Are the children happy? The nicest schools make you slightly envious of your child. You'll wish you were 5 years old again so you could start kindergarten. Does the school seem like a friendly or forbidding place? Is it clean and orderly?
Are parents welcome? Is the principal's door really open to parents? Are there events parents are invited to throughout the year?
What is the principal like? A good principal can transform a mediocre school into a gem in just a few years. A bad principal can dismantle good programs and demoralize a competent staff just as quickly. What good principals have in common is an abiding respect for the pupils in their care, a respect that is obvious even on a brief tour. It's fine to be strict, but watch out for principals who yell at kids or who regularly use a bullhorn to keep order. A principal should be not merely an administrator, but an educational leader who can articulate his or her vision for the school and help the staff carry it out.
Are there examples of children's work? Look for children's work (not decorations made by the teacher or provided by a textbook company) displayed on the bulletin boards and walls, preferably not identical shapes cut from construction paper, but work that shows individual thought and creativity. Look for examples of children's writing, even in the earliest grades. Good schools have plenty of fun-to-read books—not textbooks—but picture books as well as novels, books about historical events, biographies and science discovery books. Good schools have plenty of things children can touch and feel in math and science. Look for classrooms with live animals, plants, fish tanks and materials such as magnets and electric motors.
How well do children do on standardized tests? There’s been far too much emphasis placed on standardized tests in recent years. Still, it’s worth seeing if most of the children meet state standards for reading and math.
Read more on Gifted and other options
Class Size Matters
Class Size Matters is a non-profit, non-partisan clearinghouse for information on class size and the proven benefits of smaller classes.
Getting Started: Pre-K - Kindergarten
Your child is entitled to attend kindergarten the year he or she turns five. (If your child has his birthday in late September, October, November or December, he may begin school in September when he is still four.) For information on how to enroll, see the Inside Schools page on New to NYC Schools or call the Department of Education at (718) 935-2009.
Your child will usually be assigned to a school according to your address. If your zoned neighborhood school is overcrowded, your child may be assigned to a school with more space. Call the parent coordinator at your neighborhood school to see if there is typically a waiting list for kindergarten.
Special education services and English as a Second Language are available in your neighborhood school. If you are unsatisfied with the school to which your child is assigned, you may want to consider other options.
Some public schools have pre-kindergarten classes for 4-year-olds. Pre-kindergarten classes tend to be concentrated in high-poverty areas.
Some public schools have pre-kindergarten classes for children who have their 4th birthday before December 31 of the year they enroll. However, your child is not guaranteed a seat. Programs are either 2½ hours or 6 hours a day. Parents may rank up to five pre-kindergarten programs on an application to be submitted to the Department of Education by a spring deadline. Some pre-K programs fill up quickly, and some still have seats long after the spring deadline has passed. Some community organizations also offer pre-K classes as part of a full-day child-care program. The programs have their own applications. The DOE website has a directory of pre-kindergarten programs.
Programs change frequently: confirm any information with a phone call to the school. Preference goes to siblings of students already enrolled in a school and to children applying to their zoned elementary school. While some out-of-zone children are admitted to pre-K programs, they are not guaranteed admission to kindergarten at that school for the following year.
Your 5-year-old is guaranteed a seat in kindergarten whenever you register—whether months in advance, the first day of school or even after the school year has begun. However, it’s best to apply early if you hope to enroll in an overcrowded neighborhood school, or if you want to explore other options. Most schools offer tours in January and February, with applications due in March.
In general, your child is guaranteed a seat in your zoned neighborhood school. (Call 311 to find out which school that is.) In recent years, however, some very popular schools have become so overcrowded that they cannot accommodate all the children who live in their zone. In these cases, the schools maintain waiting lists. Many children are eventually admitted off the waiting list (as families who originally enrolled their children move out of the city or opt for private school or gifted programs). However, in some cases, your zoned school may be too crowded. In that case the Office of Student Enrollment may send your child to another school.
Great Schools - Public and Private Schools Ratings, Reviews and Parent Community
GreatSchools is a national nonprofit whose mission is to inspire and guide parents to become effective champions of their children's education at home and in their communities.
United Federation of Teachers - Parent Resources
Last updated April 16, 2019