Guide to NYC Public Schools: How to Enroll Your Child And When

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January 12, 2021
guide to nyc public schools

One of the major factors in determining where to move your family is school choice. In NYC however, it’s not as simple as just moving to the right neighborhood. NYC is home to the largest schools system in the nation. Consisting of 1,800 public schools and 32 districts–each with their own academic programs, navigating this complex system can be overwhelming. We’ve compiled this guide to NYC public schools to help you navigate this vast system and learn more about how NYC schools work.

How NYC public school admissions have changed amid the pandemic

The pandemic threw schools a curve ball with pivots to virtual school or mix of in-person learning and virtual classes. It has also affected how NYC’s most selective schools are able to screen applicants. When schools shut down, their grading and standardized testing systems were also put on pause, making it difficult for schools to evaluate students by academic performance.

According to the New York Times, middle schools will be affected by this breakdown the most. The city is slated to eliminate admissions screening for at least one year. Previously, about 200 middle schools used test scores, attendance, and grades to determine admissions. Instead they will have to admit new students via random lottery.

How NYC public school admissions work

To get started with enrollment, create a MySchools account on the Department of Education’s website. This will be your main hub for all public school related information, applications, and eligibility requirements. Once your MySchools profile is set up, you’ll easily be able to apply to NYC’s public schools and their programs. 

In most cases for children aged five to ten, parents can enroll them directly at their neighborhood school. For older children parents will need to contact a Family Welcome Center for enrollment and registration needs. 

How NYC’s pre-K system works

NYC offers free public pre-kindergarten school programs to all four-year-olds. All children are guaranteed a spot, with the caveat that the school may not be close to where you live. Additionally not all pre-K programs are located within public schools. The city has a network of public schools, childcare centers, and dedicated pre-K centers that house their programs.

How NYC’s elementary school system works

Most children in NYC will attend elementary school based on their address, as a majority of elementary schools are zoned. Children are eligible to enroll in kindergarten the year they turn five (by December 31st). All children are guaranteed a seat at a public school. 

Parents can also look into the city’s many Gifted & Talented programs (G&T). To qualify to apply to G&T programs, your child must score a 90 or above on the G&T test before they are allowed to submit an application. The test can be taken the school year before your child’s kindergarten, 1st, 2nd, or 3rd grade year. The G&T programs are broken down into two categories: 

  • District G&T programs: located within DOE public elementary schools and give priority to students who live in particular school districts.
  • Citywide G&T programs: accept students from across the city and do not give students priority based on where they live.

How NYC’s middle school system works

Middle school is where things in the NYC public school system start to get a bit tricky. Students will need to create an online application in MySchools. Here you’ll also find which district (1-32) your child is zoned to for middle school, school choices, and apply online. Middle Schools have their own eligibility criteria based on the following categories: 

  • District Schools: programs open only to students in the district where your family is zoned for middle school, or the district where your child goes to elementary school.
  • Boroughwide Schools: programs open to students within the same borough.
  • Citywide Schools: programs open to all NYC students.

Additionally, some middle schools use academic screening to select students based on their grades, standardized test scores, and attendance.

How NYC’s public high school system works

In NYC, all students have to apply to high school during their eighth grade year. Each school has its own admissions criteria, so think of preparing for the application process as building a portfolio for your child. Students can fill out a citywide application on MySchools to get started, and rank their top 12 schools in order of preference. There are not enough seats at the more competitive schools to accommodate everyone who’d like to attend, so a ranking system is used to give students backup choices. Double and triple check your school rank order as it is very difficult to transfer schools once you have enrolled. 

Like middle schools, some high schools in NYC have screened admissions too, using academic criteria like test scores and grades to determine if a student is eligible to enroll. Other schools admit students based on a lottery process. 

NYC also has nine specialized public high schools. These specialized schools have a separate admissions process from the rest of NYC’s public offerings. Eight of the schools require students to take the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) while Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts requires prospective students to audition. 

List of specialized schools

  • The Bronx High School of Science
  • The Brooklyn Latin School
  • Brooklyn Technical High School
  • High School for Mathematics, Science and Engineering at City College of New York
  • High School of American Studies at Lehman College
  • Queens High School for the Sciences at York College
  • Staten Island Technical High School
  • Stuyvesant High School
  • Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts

Parents have many choices when it comes to public schools in NYC. Its unique application system for middle and high school is unlike anywhere else in the country. For a deeper dive on individual schools with an easy to navigate interface, InsideSchools is a great resource. Additionally, visit the DOE for updated information on enrollment periods and a directory of all public schools. 

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