Now That You’ve Got In! Inside NYC Elementary School

Congratulations! Your child has landed a place in a coveted NYC public school. Now that you’ve got in, what is it like inside NYC elementary school?

I’m an NYC public elementary school mum. Yay! We scored an apartment in the school zone, did the tour, provided a mountain of paperwork to the school, met the teachers, met the assistant teachers, forked over a few hundred bucks for classroom supplies, volunteered to become the class parent, and joined the school PTA. Phew!

If you’re an elementary school mum too, then you have also endured one of the enrollment processes as described in several AWNY school series guides:

If you’re about to embark on the process, these are recommended reading, as they provide a very thorough and accurate summary of the elementary school options in NYC and how to get in.

But once you’re in, what then? What are some of the differences you’ll notice from the Australian system? What can you and your little ones expect inside NYC elementary school?


NYC elementary schools


School Hours

Our two young boys attend public elementary school in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. One is in second grade, one is in kindergarten. Their school day runs on a similar schedule to Australia, it just starts and finishes a little earlier (8.10 am drop off and a 2.30 pm pick up). Curiously, the start and finish times vary by school. Most public schools have a website that you can access via NYC DOE school search, where you can check specific school hours.

Private schools have a very similar schedule (although the day gets a little longer as the kids progress through) and the Charter schools are longer still (the school day is typically 8.10 pm till 3.15 pm). There some exceptions to this: Success Academy Charter school day for elementary is 7.45 am till 3.45 pm. Unlike Australia, the dates and lengths of the summer school holidays and mid-term breaks are not standard between the public, charter and private systems. You can view the public school calendar on the NYC DOE site.

Free Breakfast

Free breakfast is available in all NYC public schools and the choices are quite good (yoghurt and fruit, cereal and milk, juice, and on some days muffins or waffles). You can check the menu online. An added benefit is that I can drop my boys off to the school cafeteria for breakfast 20 minutes early when I need to be in the office early or to avoid the subway crush.

Breakfast is important! There is no recess between starting lessons and lunch. Charter and private schools offer a snack but the policy varies greatly in the public system both by school and by teacher. For example, my second grader doesn’t have a mid-morning snack, but my Kindergartener does. There’s a public school in the UES that has a strict no-snack policy, claiming it distracts from learning (a friend of mine sends her two boys there and has resorted to smuggling goldfish and dried apricots in via their sticky pockets!). Check with your chosen school and feed up your troops accordingly. One AWNY member loads her kids up with a healthy snack (currently home-made banana bread!) on their daily walk to school.

Free Lunch

Turns out there is such a thing! Anyone who has a kid in public elementary school in NYC is familiar with the term “hot lunch”. It’s the cafeteria-provided lunch and it’s now free for all NYC public school students. It’s convenient but I review the menu each month and choose the best days for hot lunch.

I send my boys with a packed lunch on days when things like “mozzarella sticks” and “popcorn chicken” are being served up. Come to think of it, I send them with a packed lunch most days. The nutritional value in public school hot lunches is dubious (where for art thou, Jamie Oliver?), but I believe kids in charter and private schools have far better offerings.

child inside NYC public elementary school
Photo credit: Joanna Hishon

School Security

NYC public schools have School Safety Agents, overseen by the New York Police Department, who hold the fort at the school entrances. Parents are strongly discouraged from entering the school buildings during the morning drop off period (I have been yelled at). When my boys first started school in NYC, this policy felt a little unfriendly. However, now that I’ve experienced drop off on a “snow day” I can see why it makes sense. The number of kids that need to pass through the one open door is immense – they don’t need parents clogging things up, too. We all need to visit the school office or classroom from time to time, but in colder months I make sure I rug up as I’m often hovering outside for up to 30 minutes before being allowed to enter the building. I am always asked for photo ID and need to sign when entering the schools.

Playgrounds & Outdoor Space

“Um, where’s the playground?”. Fact is, not all schools have them. The school my boys attend has both a decent sized yard and roof top play space but this is not the norm. I live within a 5-block radius of several very exclusive private schools and I find it gob-smacking that many of these schools – commanding upwards of $42k per year per kid – block off the street outside their school building so the kids have somewhere to play.

paints, scissors, calculator, pencils and other school supplies

Academic Approach

Academics is of paramount importance in New York City schools. I almost want to write that twice, such is the emphasis on test results. This is most likely because of the state-wide, standardized tests that are the sole measure of student and teacher performance.

A school’s academic results are both publicly available and often proudly broadcasted. I visited a school in Harlem recently for work and the principal bolted out each grade’s results to me within minutes of arriving; I was given so many supporting brochures I could have started a bonfire. This approach helps take the guess work out of researching potential schools.

But once they’re in, the emphasis on academics sees kids adopt a seriousness about their schooling and I feel this takes the fun and joy out of learning in some ways. The system drives a sense of nervousness and pressure and the kids feel it. And so do parents. After discussions with other mums both here in NYC and back home, I also feel homework loads are higher in NYC.

The Importance of Free Play

The heavy focus on reading, math and spelling needs a tonic and I have started prioritizing playground time and play-dates over more structured sports activities. My boys participate in a couple of sports after school because there is very little sport built into the school day. And with no recess, a sit-down cafeteria-style lunch, and frequent inclement (read: bloody cold) weather, there is little opportunity for kids to be kids.

Free play is important. One AWNY member takes her kids to the playground next to the school pretty much every day unless there is a blizzard. In fact, there is a core group of “fresh air friends” whose parents recognize the importance of unstructured outdoor play.

The Last Word…

Is school here tough? Yes, a bit. Is it different to home? Yes, very. But my kids are thriving in school in NYC and this is due, in no small part, to the dedication of the teachers, despite almost all of them being resource constrained, constantly pressured by testing policies, and totally underpaid. Now there’s a common thread with education back home!

This post was written in 2015 by Joanna Hishon, with input from Megan Jones and Allison Jurjens, and has been updated for 2019.

Do you have any experiences about what it’s like inside an NYC elementary school? Let us know in the comments section.


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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