inside NYC public elementary school

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 previous posts on the AWNY blog:

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?

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 (8.10am drop off and a 2.30PM 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 (most grades start lessons at 8.10AM till 3.15PM). There some exceptions to this: Success Academy Charter school starts their kids at 7.45AM till 4.00PM or thereabouts. 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 schools and the choices are quite good (yogurts and fruit, cereal and milk, juice, and on some days muffins or waffles). You can check the menu on the School Food NYC site. 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 provides her kids 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 elementary school in NYC is familiar with the term ‘hot lunch.’ It’s the cafeteria-provided lunch and, as of September 2017, is 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 ‘chicken dippers’ 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 security guards who hold the fort at the school entrances and 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.

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 (see 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 free 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 by Angela Tohl.

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

Stay tuned for our upcoming “School Series” posts. To connect with other Australian mums who have been through the NYC school experience, join the AWNY Meet and Greet Program.

How to: NYC Nursery School Admissions

Updated by Angela Tohl from a previous post written by AWNY

Important Dates

Private Nursery School

  • Applications Open: September straight after Labor Day for most nursery schools
  • Applications Close: vary depending on the school, usually by October/November

Public Pre-School (“Free Pre-K”)

Check the NYC Department of Education site for exact dates and sign up for email updates.

  • Applications Open: mid January
  • Applications Close: mid February

Summary of Options

NYC offers the following options for children turning 4 during the calendar year for that school year (which starts in September):

  • Private (Nursery School), and
  • Public (Free Pre-K)

Overview of NYC Nursery School

If your baby is 9-12 months old and you’d like to think about a program for nursery school, Labor Day is the time of the year to begin. Most nursery schools will begin taking applications right after the holiday – and if you’re going to apply you may as well do it on time.

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.


Photo credit: Gambín

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. Either way, a lot of the questions are basically the same for everyone. They want to understand as much as they can about your family, your child and how you think about education and parenting. It’s worth understanding the school’s philosophy before answering the questions! And 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 (it doesn’t usually vary much from the year before).

NYC Nursery School Deadlines

All schools will have their own and it’s usually about month or two later, but really 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. And 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, obviously 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.

Public Pre-school: Free Pre-K (For 4 Year Olds)

Importantly, don’t forget the free Pre-K option available in NYC. Public Pre-K is now available for New Yorkers so if your child turns 4 before December 31st they’re eligible to start a Pre-K program in September of that year. Not every school has them but you can learn about the Pre-K program on the NYC DOE site.

Public Pre-School: Free 3-K For All (For 3 Year Olds)

The City recently introduced Free 3-K For All, which is for children who turn 3 before December 31st. The program is currently available for School Districts 7 (South Bronx) and 23 (Brownsville, East New York, Ocean Hill), with the goal of bringing it to every community school district in NYC.  So check the NYC DOE 3-K For All site regularly for updates.

Have tips to share? Or need help?

Those are the basics 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.

Stay tuned as we have more “School Series” guides to come.

Good luck!


How To: NYC Kindergarten Admissions

Updated by Angela Tohl from a previous post written by AWNY.

Overview of NYC Kindergarten

In this post, we’re looking at the admissions process for Kindergarten in NYC.

Firstly, let’s clarify the terminology.  In Australia, “Kindergarten” (aka “Kindy” or “Kinder”) depending on the state, can either refer to the year of pre-school preceding prep/reception at primary school or the very first year at primary school. In the US, “Kindergarten” is part of the K-12 educational system and refers to the very first year of elementary school preceding first grade.

There are three different approaches depending on whether you are looking at Kindergarten at private, public or gifted and talented schools.

Private Schools

Kindergarten at a private school is a whole other ball game. Your nursery school will help you with everything you need, so this part will be brief. But if you’ve just moved and you’re looking to start at a private school, the best thing to do is find a consultant. The city is full of them and they know all the schools (and the schools mostly know them). A quick assessment of your family’s needs will help them guide you to the right places. They’ll also know where it might be possible to get in. This is one – – but there are plenty of others if you google them.

Luckily, if the process, cost and everything else that goes with it isn’t your thing, most of the city has fantastic public schools.

Public Schools

Important Dates For 2018 Commencement:

  • Eligibility: To commence Kindergarten for 2018-19 school year, your child must turn 5 during 2018 calendar year, i.e. your child was born in 2013.
  • Applications Open: Tues Nov 28, 2017
  • Applications Close: Fri Jan 12, 2018


The NYC Dept of Education site has a good overview of elementary schools admission. The DOE offers open houses and events, where you can visit elementary schools and learn about the admission procedures. Applications are accepted between Nov – Jan. You can choose up to 12 schools in order of preference. An offer is sent in March. In April you can accept the offer and pre-register at the chosen school.


Photo credit: Baumann


Two years ago, Ella Colley of Inside Schools wrote us a post covering An Inside Guide to NYC School Applications. Not a lot has changed since this guide was published, and Inside Schools is the best website that goes into great detail on each school. They have photos, info and all the stats, ranging from how the kids do in tests to how much the parents and teachers recommend the head of the school.

New York City’s roughly 700 public elementary (generally K-5) schools are divided into 32 districts (six of them in Manhattan). The schools within each district are strictly zoned.

Generally admissions priority for a particular school is given to students who reside in the school’s zone. However some schools will still need to wait-list kids who live within their zone, when they receive more applications than they have places available.  Conversely some schools are able to accept students from outside their zone, subject to availability of places. An AWNY member personally knows of a few families who fall into this category, so it never hurts to contact the school Principal directly.

The subject of school zones and school choices, is complex and extensive, and we are planning a follow up story on this. If you have any questions in the meantime, drop AWNY a line via email or Facebook page DM.

Admission into any public school requires proof of address (rental agreement, utility bill etc.) and the child’s birth certificate. The high demand schools – like 234 and 41 will take admissions from the previous November. But you can walk up to any admissions on any day and enroll your child in the school (if they have a place), even after term has started.

Gifted and Talented Programs

Important Dates for 2018 Commencement:

  • Eligibility: children entering K through Grade 3 in 2018 can sit the test
  • Request For Testing (RFT) for G&T Test Opens: early Oct, 2017
  • Request For Testing (RFT) for G&T Test Closes: apply online by 11.59 pm Mon Nov 13, 2017.


The NYC Department of Education site has a good overview of the G&T (Gifted and Talented) program.  The G&T program follows the same curriculum as the general education classes but at a possibly accelerated or enriched pace.

The program is available for students entering K through Grade 3 in 2018. In order to be offered a place in the program, the child must sit the G&T Test and meet the qualifying score.

District G&T programs: are located within district elementary schools (i.e. there will be a G&T class for students enrolled in the G&T program, along with classes for all other students taking the general education curriculum). These programs give admissions priority to students who live in the school district.

Citywide G&T programs: are located within a school dedicated to the G&T program (i.e. all students at this school are enrolled in the G&T program). These programs give no admissions priority to students who live in the school district. The Citywide programs are highly sought after and there are five schools: three in Manhattan – Anderson, Nest+M and TAG. There is also one in Queens – 30th Avenue School, and one in Brooklyn, the Brooklyn School of Inquiry.


The process begins at the G&T website. In mid-October, registration opens for testing (RFT) and it closes mid-November. You need to register your child to be tested, and you want to do it early to get a convenient test centre. Testing takes place largely in January.

Students scoring 90 or more can apply to District G&T Programs.  Students scoring 97 or more can apply to District and Citywide G&T Programs.  However in reality it’s more like above 99 to get into a Citywide program. There is a high demand for places in the G&T program and regardless of the child’s test score, there is no guarantee a student will receive an offer.

In addition to the practice questions in the G&T handbook provided by the DOE, lots of parents prep their children further for these tests. It’s totally up to the individual – you can prep them and they may get in. But if they don’t get in on their own, they may have a tough time once they’re there. So while some test prep – so they know what to expect – is important, lots of the educators don’t recommend doing too much. Which sounds good to me, it’s expensive and time consuming so I’ll take the advice!

And then, of course, last but not least there is Hunter Elementary which is a school for gifted and talented students, administered by Hunter College, of the City University of New York. It has a very low acceptance rate, despite the $400 cost to test for it, and you can’t prepare. They take 25 girls and 25 boys in Kindergarten, with more admissions in high school. It’s only open to people living in Manhattan. Famed New Yorker, Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of “Hamilton” is a graduate of Hunter College High School.

And that is it!

Do you have any NYC Kindergarten tips or tricks?

Let us know in the comments section, and enjoy the school year!

Stay tuned for upcoming posts in our “School Series”.