How to Apply to Pre-School and Nursery School in NYC

It seems like just yesterday your child was taking their first steps. Now they’re a feisty pre-schooler and ready for school. New York City offers many excellent free and private options. Read on to find out how to apply to pre-school and nursery school in NYC.

Summary of Options

Public Pre-school: Free 3-K and Pre-K, for kids who are 3 and 4 respectively, is provided by the NYC DOE (Department of Education), for which all children residing in NYC are eligible.

Private Nursery School: For private pre-school/nursery school, the fees, age requirements and acceptance criteria are set by the individual institution, for example some private schools offer places for kids as young as 18 months. We’ve provided more details further below in this guide.

NYC pre-school nursery school application early childhood

When to Apply

Public Pre-School: The application period is typically open from mid-January through mid-February (to start pre-school in September of the same calendar year), but check with the NYC DOE for exact dates and sign up for email updates.

Private Nursery School: Applications generally open in September straight after Labor Day, and close by October/November, (to start nursery school the following calendar year) but this varies by school.Public Pre-school

Here are some important highlights about applying for the public pre-school programs:

Public Pre-school for 3 Year Olds

There are a limited number of free 3-K places for 3 year olds, with the goal of extending the program to every NYC school district. Check the NYC DOE 3-K site to find out if there is a location near you and/or if your child is eligible.

Public Pre-school for 4 Year Olds

Free public Pre-K is available for all NYC kids turning 4 before December 31st. There are an extensive number of places available at many NYC district schools (though some are too small and do not have the physical space) as well as community-based organizations, who have been contracted by the NYC DOE. Most locations offer a full-day schedule, though some do offer a half-day schedule. You can learn more about the Pre-K program, find a location and apply online via the NYC DOE Pre-K site.

Photo credit: Gambín

Overview of Private Nursery School in NYC

The application process for private nursery school is a little more involved and varies by school so we’ve put together the following information to help you:

If your baby is 9-12 months old and you’d like to think about a program for private nursery school, Labor Day is the time of the year to begin. Most nursery schools will begin taking applications right after the holiday.

You might have heard stories from friends who wrote six “essays” or more so their two year old could sing, paint and glue. Or you might be happily unaware of such boring tales. But it always sounds worse than it is. There are lots of great schools to choose from and the process is really not a big deal as long as you know how it works.

Selecting the Nursery School

Close to home works for most! But some travel too. Either way the best place for the list of all the options is the Parents League and then check out each school’s website for more details on the age of acceptance (usually between 18 months and 3 years depending on the school).

The Nursery School Applications Process

Each private nursery school has their own and 90% are online the day after Labor Day, but some require you to call and request it. The questions are basically the same for everyone. They want to understand as much as they can about your family, your child and your view on education and parenting. It’s worth understanding the school’s philosophy before answering the questions! If you’re serious about some of the tougher schools to get into, it’s worth preparing the answers before the applications open so you’re ready to fill it out on the day, as the questions don’t usually vary much from the year before.

Nursery School Application Deadlines

All schools will have their own application deadlines and it’s usually about a month or two after Labor Day, however the best time to submit them is as soon as possible. Even if they have an October deadline they may close it early if they receive too many.

Playdates and Interviews

Once you’ve made it through the “lottery” for the applications, you’ll be invited to an interview and tour for the parents. All of this might sound ridiculous, but actually seeing the school and the teachers interacting with the children helps you solidify your own preferences. Your child may also be invited to a “playdate” so the teachers see how they interact. It’s not to judge your child so much as to try and balance the personalities in the class, so it’s nothing to worry about. Most of the kids seem to love it: an AWNY member shares that her daughter left the first one and had so much fun she asked when there would be cake (she thought it was a party!).

Nursery School Acceptance and Waitlists

You’ll hear back in February where you got in (all on the one day). If you got into more than one school, be sure to let the school you don’t want know as soon as possible so they can offer it to another child. If you didn’t get in to the school of your choice, don’t panic, email them immediately and ask to stay on the waitlist. You never know.

colorful aprons at pre-school and nursery school for kids art class
Photo by Mike Fox on Unsplash

Tips and Help

So there you have the basics to apply for pre-school and nursery school in NYC, but if you have any questions or additional tips, please let us know in the comments section. If you’d like a first-hand perspective, check with other Aussie parents via the Australian Mums & Dads in New York Facebook Group.

If you have older kids, be sure to check out our other AWNY guides to NYC schools.

Good luck!

This post was written by AWNY, first published in 2016 and updated in 2018 and 2019.

Author: Australian Women in New York

Australian Women in New York (AWNY) sources stories and guides that will help make you win the Big Apple. We also love to profile fabulous Aussie and Kiwi women.

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