What are your options?

Most children attend their zoned neighborhood elementary school. However, New York City has an extensive system of school choice and you may want to consider other options, including gifted programs, unzoned schools, charter schools and dual language programs.

Gifted programs

Children who score particularly high on standardized tests may be eligible for “gifted and talented” (G&T) programs. These programs offer an accelerated curriculum and the chance to be in a class with other academically successful children. There has been a boom in the popularity of these programs in recent years, and some only accept children who score in the 99th percentile on admissions tests.

Is a gifted program right for your child? Some of the best schools in the city refuse to segregate children by ability and manage to bring all children to a high level of achievement. At a school like that, your child may do very well in a general education classroom, even if he or she is unusually capable. On the other hand, in parts of the city where the overall quality of the neighborhood schools is poor, gifted programs may offer a refuge.

You may request that your child be tested in the fall the year before he or she starts kindergarten. The deadline to request testing is generally in early November; the tests are given in January and February. Families who move to the city after testing is completed have an opportunity to screen their child over the summer. It’s sometimes possible to transfer to a gifted program in the upper grades, but seats are limited.

Most of the city’s 32 districts offer gifted programs. All incoming kindergarten-3rd-graders who score at the 90th percentile on the admissions tests are eligible for a spot in a district G&T program. In addition, there are five even more selective programs open to children citywide. Students who score at or above the 97th percentile are eligible for citywide programs. (In recent years, most citywide programs have only admitted children who score in the 99th percentile.) The following are citywide programs:

To determine eligibility for children entering kindergarten, 1st, 2nd and 3rd grades, the Department of Education uses a child's combined score on two assessments to generate a percentile ranking: For Fall, 2014 admission, the tests are the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test (OLSAT) accounting for 50 percent of the score, and the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (NNAT) accounting for 50 percent of the score.

Siblings who qualify for G&T are given priority in the same program as their sibling if the older child is currently enrolled at the school in grades K-4. If siblings do not qualify for the gifted program, an attempt will be made to place them in the general education program at the same school, depending on space.

Current 3rd- and 4th-graders who score Level 4 on both reading and math standardized test are also eligible for gifted programs, although there are very limited seats. Parents of children who are not enrolled in public schools may contact the Office of Gifted and Talented programs at (212) 374-6646 or the DOE's help desk (718) 935-2984, 52 Chambers Street, Room 208, New York, NY 10007.

Two other noteworthy programs: Hunter College Elementary School, open to Manhattan children entering kindergarten only, and the Special Music School on the Upper West Side, open to musically gifted children citywide.

Other options

Unzoned schools are also called alternative schools, option schools, choice schools or magnet schools. New York City has long offered a range of options for elementary school children. Schools like Central Park East I, Central Park East II and Ella Baker in Manhattan have long accepted applications from all over the city. Other schools, like Midtown West in District 2, Manhattan School for Children in District 3, and The Children’s School in District 15, limit admission to children living in their district. The Brooklyn New School is open to all Brooklyn residents, but gives preference to children living in districts 13, 14 15 and 16. 

Charter schools are free, experimental public schools that operate independently of the local districts under a "charter" from the state Board of Regents or the State University of New York (SUNY). The quality of education in charter schools varies: some are very successful, while others are no better or are even worse than the ordinary public schools with which they compete for students. The number of charters has expanded rapidly in recent years, and the 125 charter schools now serve some 37,000 pupils, or about 3 percent of the city’s schoolchildren. Teachers are not unionized at most charters; they may work longer hours than their counterparts at public schools and may be fired at will. Many charters have longer school days and a longer school year than other public schools and some have considerable extra resources from private sources. All are supposed to offer special education services and English as a Second Language. Some have strict disciplinary and uniform policies; they sometimes ask children to leave if they do not meet the school’s standards for behavior, attendance and academic progress.

Each charter admits students by a lottery held in April. Applications are available on the New York City Charter School Center website or at the individual schools. Some schools will accept a common application, and that will be indicated on their webpage. Anyone may apply, but preference goes to children living in the school district in which the charter is located. Most charters maintain a waitlist, and it is sometimes possible to get a seat in a charter during the school year if a student leaves. More information is available on the Department of Education website and the SUNY Charter Schools Institute. The SUNY Charter Schools Institute has a useful list of questions parents should ask when they visit a charter school, as well as data on charter schools’ test scores.

See a rundown of the different kinds of charter schools and networks in New York City here.

Dual-language immersion programs have classes in which half the students are native speakers of English, and half speak another language (Spanish, Chinese or French, for example). Classes are taught in each language on alternative days or weeks, and the children are expected to become fluent in both. [Non English-speakers may also want to consider bilingual or English as a Second Language classes. These are designed to teach children English but do not attempt to help them perfect their native languages.] You can search for dual-language programs in our Find a School section.             

Magnet programs are designed to foster racial integration. They receive federal or state funding for special programs (such as art, drama or law) to make the school attractive to children of different races who might not otherwise attend, and they admit children from outside their immediate neighborhood. Call your district office to find out if there are any magnet programs in your district.

Homeschooling: Parents unhappy with the public school options in their neighborhood may consider educating their child at home. You must notify the Department of Education that you plan to teach your child at home, and you must submit a plan for what you (or a tutor you hire) will teach. The New York State Education Department website has a useful question-and-answer section for parents considering homeschooling. The Department of Education’s Office of Youth Development oversees homeschooling in New York City.

Private schools: Insideschools.org is a guide to public schools in New York City. We only profile public schools within the city's five boroughs, and do not cover private or parochial schools. Here's a list of websites with information about private and parochial schools.

    • Diocese of Brooklyn and the New York Archdiocese operate Roman Catholic schools in New York City and upstate New York and have a searchable school database.
    • Greatschools.net—source of school information on public, private and charter schools in all 50 states, and detailed school profiles for California, Arizona, Texas, Florida and Washington.
    • Independent Schools Admissions Association of Greater New York offers a directory of independent schools
    • The Parents League offers information and advice on private school admissions in New York City to parents who pay an annual membership fee. Advice on summer camps and after-school programs also available.
    • Early Steps offers financial assistance to children of color to attend private elementary schools.