What to Know When Applying to Public School in New York City

In New York City, school admissions season, which starts not long after the first day of school, is a chaotic, monthslong frenzy for many families.

New York’s school system, the nation’s largest, is split into 32 districts that are home to more than 1,700 public schools, and families often have dozens of options starting as early as age 3. By kindergarten, students might be sorted into divergent tracks, and the intensity of the high school search process draws comparisons to college admissions.

But there are ways to make the experience easier. More than half a dozen education and admissions experts and counselors offered tips for how to sort through the avalanche of information and what to look for to find the right school for your child.

Here’s what you need to know.

First, take a step back and reflect on your child’s interests and the type of school — large or small; traditional with lots of structure, or progressive with more freedom — that he or she might thrive in.

Then, take a deep breath: Admissions experts stressed that no school is perfect.

But there are two key elements to look for, according to a host of research studies: the quality of the teachers and the principal.

To find clues about them, consider their interactions with students, their level of experience (which can be found on a school’s report card) and whether the staff seems cohesive and seems to agree on a common vision for the school. In preschool and early grades, tone is crucial. Are teachers nurturing? Are they talking with students or at them? Do children seem joyful?

Of course, what schools actually teach is also important, particularly the approach to reading, writing and math instruction. Many schools are in the process of adopting new curriculums to overhaul ineffective practices, and it’s worth asking about their plans.

Elissa Stein, a local consultant on high school admissions, said she often tells families that factors like commute, start time, extracurricular activities and support services will also shape a student’s experience.

“If you know that one kind of environment isn’t right for your child, or wouldn’t be beneficial, then take some schools off your list,” she said. “Even if they have amazing reputations.”

A good starting place is the website InsideSchools, which is known as one of New York City’s best resources for advice, data and school reviews.

The Department of Education publishes another helpful metric, an impact score, which is meant to show how well a school helps students grow academically based on standardized test results.

Families with children who are already enrolled can also offer insight. One Facebook group run by families about the high school admissions process is particularly popular. But make sure to double-check information on the Education Department website.

Also consider looking beyond well-known options when making a list of choices. “More and more, it’s important to look beyond that and cast a wide net,” Laura Zingmond, a senior editor at InsideSchools, said.

“Force yourself to throw on a few that you’ve never heard of, but look interesting,” she said. “Or that look interesting but someone said, ‘I don’t like that school.’ Block out the noise.”

One common piece of advice: The earlier you start making that list, the better. As you compare options, admissions experts also say that nothing beats an in-person tour.

Ask questions, take detailed notes and pay attention to the school environment. Do students participate in discussions, or seem disengaged? Is there a wide variety of books in the classrooms?

For elementary students, think beyond their kindergarten year. You might ask to observe a fifth-grade class, or to view the assignments that teenage students complete, to see if they are well marked up by the teachers, Ms. Zingmond said.

Consider asking how a school might approach hypothetical challenges, such as a disciplinary issue or emotional struggle, Ms. Zingmond said. “Always ask for an example if the school says they do something well,” she added.

Even if your student does not have a disability, it is also worth paying attention to a school’s approach to special education, said Clara Hemphill, the founder of InsideSchools. “You want to see how they deal with kids that don’t fit the mold,” she said. “Are they included? Are they attentive?”

First, the basics. Here are the grade levels at which New York families have to apply for schools:

  • Preschool: New York offers free prekindergarten programs for 3- and 4-year olds that run the length of a full school day, and families may be eligible for extended options based on income and need.

  • Elementary: All children are guaranteed a kindergarten seat, and enroll in the calendar year they turn 5. Most students attend their zoned schools, and have admissions priority based on their home addresses. Find your zoned school here. Three areas — the Lower East Side, East New York and the South Bronx — do not have zones, and you can apply across the district.

  • Middle: Most students enroll at either their zoned schools or at another school in the same district. Some programs accept children from anywhere in the city or from a particular borough. Students in the Bronx, for example, can apply to any middle school there.

  • High School: You have the most options for high school, and can apply to programs across the city. Here’s an in-depth video explaining the process.

To get started applying to any of the city’s public schools, create an account on the city’s MySchools website. You can also sign up to receive admissions announcements, and reach out to a family welcome center for help.

Application deadlines and rules can change, but at every school level, you’ll receive a random lottery number and rank up to 12 choices for programs.

The lottery number comes into play when there are more applicants than seats. Then, schools sort children into priority groups for admission, using factors like their borough or whether they have a sibling enrolled. Students are offered spots in order of lottery number until all the seats are filled.

Middle and high school applications open on Oct. 3 and Oct. 11, and are due in December. The preschool and kindergarten timeline falls later. Offers are sent out starting in March. Find exact dates here.

About 13 percent of the city’s students attend charter schools. They are free and publicly funded but run privately, outside of the city’s Education Department. Many have longer school days and academic years, or unique themes and approaches. Their applications are run separately, and deadlines tend to fall in April.

You should rank schools and programs in order of your true preference. There is no better approach. Students are considered for a lower choice only if a higher ranked school does not have space.

Admissions experts suggest creating a complete list of 12 schools with a balance of programs, priorities and demand per seat, which you can find on MySchools. Apply by the deadline; there is also no benefit to applying earlier.

You might also take advantage of unique admissions methods, Ms. Stein said. A strong writer with average grades could consider high schools that weigh essays heavily. Students who struggled in middle school might look into educational option programs, which reserve seats across levels of academic performance, said Sindy Nuesi, who runs a youth center that works with middle school students in the Cypress Hills neighborhood of Brooklyn.

What if your child doesn’t get his or her first choice?

Students are automatically wait-listed at programs they ranked ahead of the school where they are admitted. But even if you’re left disappointed, remember that your student can still thrive, said Mahalia Watson, a Harlem parent who created the online guide Let’s Talk Schools.

“It will not be the end of the world if your child doesn’t get into the one school that everybody says they need to in order to have a great life,” she said. “It’s just not true.”

The city also has many other programs listed in this year’s official admissions guide.