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Exploring Elementary School Options in New York City

The elementary school system in New York City can be confusing and intimidating, with a wide range of public and private options. What’s more, the quality varies widely across the city. New York is home to top-notch schools that deliver an outstanding education year in and year out, while some continue to lag behind. This leads to a hypercompetitive process to get your child into the “best” program. What any parent should understand is that there is no such thing as the best elementary school in New York City, there is only the school that is best for your child and your family. This article will briefly explain each option to help families make an informed decision, highlighting what differentiates each type of school and describe the enrollment processes.

The first and most common option is public zoned schools.  They are run by the New York City Department of Education (DOE), which enrolls just over 1 million students in all 5 boroughs from PreK-12th grade, 422,000 of which are in elementary schools. While most zoned programs have the advantage of being close to home and easily accessible, their downsides include large class sizes and wide variation in school quality. Some local zoned schools offer an incredible elementary education, while some are poorly funded and consistently underperform. It is best to check school metrics published by the DOE and reviews such as Insideschools to evaluate the programs in your area. Enrollment in zoned schools is relatively simple, and the DOE has an online tool to find the program in your area.

Gifted and Talented programs are also administered by the Department of Education. These schools seek to provide a challenging learning environment for intelligent students by accelerating classroom content. They boast an incredible educational experience and excellent teachers for free, allowing students to begin their schooling on the right foot. For example, NEST+m, a top citywide program, offers Mandarin and Singapore math in elementary school. What’s more, G&T programs put students on the right track to be accepted into the middle or high school of their choice later on. The big drawback is a competitive admissions process, centering on the G&T exam comprised of the NNAT®2 and OLSAT® tests. While a 90th percentile will gain you a spot in district programs, you need a 99th percentile for a chance at a spot in the top schools. Parents interested in a high-quality public education should consider signing up for the G&T e xam to see if their child qualifies.

Another option to consider is charter schools. They are publicly funded and operate under a public charter, but are run by a private not-for-profit board. While they are allowed to adopt their own curriculum, schools must disclose student achievement data to ensure accountability. Most charters have a longer average school day and boast additional funding from private sources.  Admissions are decided by a non-discriminatory lottery. Much like public zoned schools, some are wildly successful while others lag behind. Charter schools are best for parents seeking a free, privately-run alternative to public schools.

In contrast with public schools, New York City has a number of excellent private schools. They boast a smaller class size, better facilities, and more enrichment for your child. Activities are built into the curriculum, making it especially appropriate for hands-on learners. However, they are costly and require ERB testing as part of an application process. Private schools are most appropriate for parents with children that require more personalized attention and are willing to spend the money on private tuition.

Keep in mind that this article doesn’t represent an exhaustive list, merely a quick description of  the most popular options in New York City. Interested parents can also look into Hunter College Elementary School, unzoned schools, magnet programs, or even home schooling. The most important thing to bear in mind is that you should make a choice based on family priorities and what program is most suited to your child.

Want something that is close to home and familiar? Enroll in a public zoned school. Interested in an advanced, academically rigorous school? Consider applying for G&T programs. Looking for something different than what the New York City DOE has to offer? Sign up for a charter school lottery. Do you need your child to be in a small class? Private schools may be the most enticing option. No elementary school is the best in the city, but there certainly is one that is best for your individual needs.

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James Fleming is Director of Technology and Business Development at Bright Kids NYC, a one-stop shop for PreK-8th grade test prep, academic tutoring, and publications.  Bright Kids was founded in New York City and offers a wide range of services related to elementary school admissions.  Feel free to contact James with questions about this article or the elementary school process. You can get in touch with him through our Ask the Expert Feature. 

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